Getting hit by flying debris or hitting your head after being thrown can take a toll on the health of a veteran, even to the point of accelerating the onset of Alzheimer’s.
It is common knowledge that a blast can result in a traumatic brain injury (TBI).TBI can cause numerous neurological symptoms, including personality changes, depression, anxiety, and sleep issues.
Over the years, many have wondered if there is also a link between trauma and Alzheimer’s disease. If there is, can a veteran receive VA disability benefits? Can a surviving spouse qualify for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) if their veteran spouse experienced TBI and Alzheimer’s?
In this article about TBI and Alzheimer’s among veterans:
- Can TBI Cause Alzheimer’s? The Link Between Trauma and Alzheimer’s
- You Do Not Need to Experience TBI to Be at Risk
- Emotional Trauma and Alzheimer’s
- Alzheimer’s, Trauma, and Traumatic Brain Injury in Older Veterans
- Is Alzheimer’s Caused by Blast Trauma Covered by VA Disability?
- Can a Surviving Spouse Qualify for DIC?
- Filing a DIC Claim: You Do Not Have to Do This on Your Own
Can TBI Cause Alzheimer’s? The Link Between Trauma and Alzheimer’s
When a veteran sustains a head injury, the symptoms they experience immediately after are those that are also seen in dementia patients. These include:
- Memory loss
- Changes in speech
- Vision issues
- Personality changes
Depending on the severity of the trauma, the symptoms can clear up quickly or, in some cases, never completely go away.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some TBIs can cause dementia – including Alzheimer’s – later in life. Contributing factors include the severity of the trauma and the age of the veteran at the time of the incident.
Other risk factors include carrying the e4 version of the APOE gene, a gene that helps control fat and cholesterol in the blood. (It is not known how the e4 version is related to Alzheimer’s risk, though it has been associated with an increase in amyloid plaques – protein clumps – in brain tissue.)
Regarding explosions and Alzheimer’s, a new study was released earlier this year (2021) that shows a significant link between blast exposure and Alzheimer’s.
Blasts from military or improvised explosions account for many of the injuries that veterans sustain throughout the 21st century. Postmortem brains of veterans exposed to blasts showed signs of neuropathology.
Researchers studied the brain tissue and found that when it was exposed to blast shockwaves, it resulted in distinct alterations between the connections of neurons within the part of the brain involved with memory and social behavior (hippocampus).
To test their hypothesis, they exposed the brain tissue of rats to blast shockwaves. They found that, in addition to a reduction in the elements of brain connections vital for memory, there was also a sharp decline in neuronal connection activity. These effects can be an early indicator of the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
You Do Not Need to Experience TBI to Be at Risk
While it may stand to reason that brain trauma caused by a serious blast could lead to long-term issues such as Alzheimer’s, the study exposed some startling information. A veteran does not need to experience a traumatic brain injury to have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Researchers found that exposure to even a mild blast can increase the risk. In fact, the veteran does not even need to get hit in the head with debris. Just the shockwaves from the blast can do damage.
This is particularly disturbing because – according to the original report – as hundreds of thousands of veterans have returned from wars, many of them have no detectible injuries or neuropathology. Still, they suffer from persistent neurological issues similar to veterans who have experienced a TBI.
Because there is no evidence of an injury, some assume the vet’s symptoms may be the result of PTSD. While depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances are symptoms of PTSD, it is vital that a veteran who has been a victim of blast exposure sees a doctor for the symptoms they are experiencing.
Not only can the doctor recommend remedies that can help ease the veteran’s symptoms – they may also be able to take steps to identify and manage blast-induced trauma, while also attempting to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Unfortunately, at this time, diagnosis for brain damage sustained from shockwaves is challenging. Neuroimaging techniques do not have the level of sensitivity necessary to detect subtle alterations from blast exposure. However, technology is constantly improving, so hopefully, there will soon be a way to monitor veterans more effectively.
Emotional Trauma and Alzheimer’s
Though not as well known as the effects of physical trauma, emotional trauma can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. A 2018 study found that PTSD puts male veterans at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Veterans face a lot of emotional trauma. Combat is physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful, as is losing a comrade in battle and enduring a life-altering injury.
Besides active-duty traumas, everyday life stressors can put veterans at higher risk of dementia.
A TBI can exacerbate the effects of emotional trauma, causing the veteran to experience:
- Aggression (physical or verbal)
- Lack of cooperation
- Lack of motivation
The neurobehavioral effects of a TBI or PTSD can slightly, moderately, or severely interfere with a veteran’s relationships or ability to work. They can also endanger the safety of the veteran or others. The VA recognizes this and, under the “Evaluation of Cognitive Impairment and Other Residuals of TBI Not Otherwise Classified” section of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, the veteran can receive a score of zero to three. The score is added to their total score of active-duty service-related conditions, which can increase their VA disability benefits rating.
Alzheimer’s, Trauma, and Traumatic Brain Injury in Older Veterans
What about concussions and Alzheimer’s in the elderly?
A 2014 study performed by researchers at the San Francisco, CA, VA Hospital found that older veterans with a TBI were predisposed to developing dementia. This concerned researchers as it has implications for younger veterans who experience a TBI as well. As we know from recent research, though, even shockwaves can cause damage. No matter a veteran’s age, if they have been exposed to a blast, they should see a physician right away.
What about when an elderly patient falls and hits their head? Falls can be caused by previous illnesses or injuries that cause weakness or dizziness. They can also be caused simply by the natural weakening of the body that happens with age.
Here one of our VA disability lawyers talks about how SMC (Special Monthly Compensation) works to help you get more money for extra expenses related to your disabling condition every month.
Whatever the reason, a fall is dangerous for elderly veterans, especially if they hit their head. Because so many adults take blood thinners (over 50%), bleeding is a major concern. Bleeding anywhere in the body is dangerous, but especially so in the brain. If not treated immediately, it can lead to death.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, older adults have the highest rate (nearly 80%) of deaths caused by falling, as well as hospitalization related to TBI. This institution also recognizes that TBI is a risk factor in the development of Alzheimer’s.
Is Alzheimer’s Caused by Blast Trauma Covered by VA Disability?
Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in this country. It is estimated that veterans with a TBI have a two-fold risk of developing dementia. Because of this link between TBI and dementia, the VA disability rating goes up to 100% for trauma and Alzheimer’s.
Your disability rating will depend on the severity of your disease, how quickly it is progressing, and its relationship to your active-duty service.
It is imperative that you talk to a physician as soon as you or someone close to you starts recognizing symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s, such as confusion and memory loss. Doing so will help speed up the claims process.
The doctor will determine which of the following conditions are contributing to the disease:
- Agent Orange exposure
- Traumatic brain injury
They will also evaluate how those conditions – as well as your Alzheimer’s – are affecting your daily life. From there, you will receive a disability rating.
Here is a video of one of our Veterans Disability Lawyers teaching you how to use our VA Disability Combined Ratings Calculator.
Benefits a Veteran Can Receive If They Qualify
In addition to monetary benefits, the VA provides health care services for veterans with progressive diseases. Services include:
- Adult Day Health Care
- Home-based primary care
- In-patient hospital care
- Outpatient clinical care
- Palliative care
- Hospice care
- Home health aides
- Respite care (relief for primary caregivers)
Veterans who need around-the-clock care are eligible to move into a VA nursing home. There is at least one in each state.
Can a Surviving Spouse Qualify for DIC?
As the surviving spouse of a veteran with Alzheimer’s, you may qualify for benefits.
DIC benefits are based on a one-year, five-year, and 10-year rule, in addition to the veteran’s eligibility (if their death was caused by a service-related condition).
- One-year rule: To be eligible, the veteran had to be a prisoner of war and had been receiving total disability benefits for a service-related condition for at least 12-months before their death.
- Five-year rule: If the veteran was entitled to total VA disability benefits continuously for five years before their death, their spouse is eligible for DIC.
- 10-year rule: The spouse of a veteran who received disability benefits for 10 consecutive years prior to their death is eligible.
Another rule for eligibility is that you need to prove that the service-related condition they were receiving disability benefits for was the primary contributing factor to their death.
Potential Compensation Benefits for Surviving Family of Veterans
The amount you receive depends on when your spouse passed away. The new benefits as of December 2020 are as follows:
- If they died prior to January 1, 1993: Total monthly benefit starts at $1,357.56. From there, the amount increases based on factors such as dependent children or a disability that makes it difficult for you to leave your home.
- If they died on or after January 1, 1993: In this scenario, you will be paid based on the veteran’s pay grade. Similar to the previous example, you would calculate your monthly benefit amount based on the pay grade of your spouse and add additional benefits based on dependent children and other factors.
In addition to funds, you may also be eligible to receive additional benefits, including:
- Health care
- Education and training
- Home loan programs
- Financial counseling
- Burial benefits
How to File a DIC Claim with the VA
First, you should apply for DIC after the death of your spouse and do so as soon as possible. When you are approved for benefits, you will receive back payments from the time you applied for DIC – not from the time of your spouse’s death. Therefore, if you wait a few years (or in some cases, decades) before applying, you will not receive compensation for that time. You will be paid based on when you submitted your claim.
Next, make sure you show strong medical evidence in your DIC claim. Get a statement from your spouse’s physician that shows a link between the veteran’s death and their service. This is important for all VA disability claims but especially vital in DIC cases. The reason for this is that death certificates do not always state that the cause of death was a service-connected disability or if there were multiple disabilities, one of which contributed to the death.
Finally, get help from a VA disability attorney. The Woods and Woods legal team can help you by regularly consulting with physicians and medical experts for DIC claim appeals. They are happy to research the relationship between your spouse’s service-related disability and their cause of death to help you win your claim.
Filing a DIC Claim: You Do Not Have to Do This on Your Own
Filing a claim (or appealing one that has been denied) can feel intimidating and overwhelming. Rest assured, this is not something you have to do alone. Woods and Woods, The Veteran’s Firm, can help.
We are a family-owned firm with a large team to help you through each phase of the claims process. We have been in practice for over 35 years and provide our clients with numerous free resources, like our VA disability benefits calculator.
Our team has successfully helped numerous veterans, their spouses, and dependents get the compensation they are entitled to receive. We are confident we can help you, too.
We’ve been adding staff and lawyers during the Covid pandemic to better serve disabled veterans in difficult times.
Call us today to discuss your VA disability appeal or your first application. The call is free and we won’t charge you a single fee until we win your case. We even pay for the postage for all of the documentation you send to our office. You can look for a VA disability attorney near you or call us and join the thousands of veterans living off of VA disability thanks to Woods and Woods.
Talk to Us About Your Claim: (866) 232-5777
No, the DIC is paid from the day you apply for those benefits. If you know a surviving spouse of a veteran, have them call our office as soon as possible to get their application started.
Yes, give us a call and we’ll walk you through the process. If the VA has declared your veteran incompetent, the VA will work with us and work with you to get the full disability compensation you all deserve.
If your spouse was a veteran whose death was the result of an injury during service, you can receive DIC benefits until the day you die. That means it’s never too late to apply for those benefits. It does take some time to get the application and the approval together, so start sooner rather than later.