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Women's Health: Migraines aren't memory killers

Study dispels the myth that the headaches can damage the brain

A migraine headache may hurt, but it’s not going to worsen your thinking powers over the long term, according to a recent study.

“Even though there’s no strong evidence in the literature, a lot of people think that people with migraines are going to somehow be neurologically ‘off,’ that they’re going to be damaged in some way that they might be more likely to decline,” says study researcher Amanda Kalaydjian of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. “That may not be the case at all.”

A migraine is a recurrent headache that is associated with nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light. Some people also experience visual warning signs of an impending migraine, such as flashing or blinking lights.

Kalaydjian and her team studied 204 people with migraines and 1,244 people without migraines who were given various mental tests between 1993 and 1996, and again in 2004 or 2005. The first time they were tested, the migraine patients had lower scores on the memory tests. However, when they took the tests again more than a decade later, those with migraines had experienced less decline than those without migraines. This effect was particularly strong in people age 50 years and older.

“It was a very surprising result,” Kalaydjian says. “And this was an effect that was more seen in people who had migraine with aura, which is even more counterintuitive because migraine with aura is the migraine headache that a lot of people hypothesize has a neurological component that’s going to cause subtle (damage to blood vessels in the brain) over time.”

The study was not designed to look for factors that might be protecting migraine patients from mental decline, but Kalaydjian says it’s possible that certain pain medications called non-Aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs could be involved. Also, migraine patients may be more health conscious and get more sleep or take more vitamins than other people, or may avoid alcohol because of its association with migraine.

“A lot of people don’t think that would explain it, though,” Kalaydjian says. “It might just be some underlying biological difference that might be giving rise to this.”