Q & A Library

Print this page | Sign up for free e-bulletins
 | Bookmark This Page

Are Migraines Dangerous?

I have had migraines for years. While my headaches are less frequent and less severe than they once were, I have heard that they put me at greater risk of dementia when I get older. Is this true? 

Answer (Published 1/18/2013)

Migraines are severe, disabling headaches that affect up to 17 percent of women and six percent of men. Untreated, these headaches can last for hours and sometimes as long as three days. Fortunately, medical management of migraine has improved dramatically since the introduction in the 1990s of drugs that specifically target migraine pain. Some patients also benefit from taking other medications that can prevent the headaches, although finding the right one for an individual can be a process of trial and error. An integrative approach - combining the best of conventional treatment with evidence-based natural approaches - can help reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. Be sure to see my recommendations for managing migraine headaches on this site.

A few studies have suggested that migraine increases the risk of stroke and structural brain lesions, and some evidence has linked the headaches to dementia and cognitive decline. However, a report from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston, published in 2012, noted that earlier studies linking migraine with cognitive decline weren't large enough to reliably determine an association. The BWH investigators began by reviewing a study of nearly 40,000 women age 45 and older, and analyzed data from 6,349 of the participants, including a group of women with no history of migraine, a group of women who had migraine with aura (visual disturbances that can precede the headache), women who had migraine without aura, and those who had a past history of migraine. Cognitive testing, performed every two years, showed that the women who had migraine (with or without aura) had no greater rates of cognitive decline than the women without the headaches, a finding that the lead researcher characterized as reassuring for migraine patients and their doctors. The study was published online on August 8, 2012 by the British Medical Journal.

As for the danger of stroke, patients who have migraine with aura have twice the risk of ischemic stroke, which is caused when a blockage in a blood vessel in the head interrupts blood supply to an area of the brain. While twice the risk may seem high, it actually isn't, since the normal risk of these strokes in young people is very low (less than 20 per 100,000 people per year). Any long-term deficit resulting from ischemic stroke would depend on the location and size of the area of brain damage.

You may have heard that severe migraines are associated with "white matter lesions" on the brain that show up on MRI scans. So far, no one knows what causes these "bright spots," how or why they develop, and what they mean. Stay tuned on this one. I'll report on new findings as they occur.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved Creative Commons Copyright Notice
A portion of the original material created by Weil Lifestyle on (specifically, all question and answer-type articles in the Dr. Weil Q&A Library) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Weil Vitamin Advisor
Get your FREE personalized vitamin recommendation & supplement plan today!

Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging
Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Start eating for your health - begin your free trial now.

Dr. Weil's Spontaneous Happiness
Achieve emotional well-being in just eight weeks! Start your 10-day free trial now!

Vitamin Library
Supplement your knowledge with Dr. Weil's essential vitamin facts. Learn why they are necessary and more.

Dr. Weil's Optimum Health Plan
Your 8-week plan to wellness.
Begin your journey today!

Dr. Weil's Head-to-Toe Wellness Guide
Your guide to natural health.
Use the Wellness Guide today!

Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Food Pyramid

Our interactive tool can help improve overall health through diet.

Condition Care Guide
Learn about health conditions from acne to vertigo, and Dr. Weil's view of the best treatment options for each.

Healthy Recipes
Discover a treasure trove of healthy, healing foods and creative, delicious ways to prepare them.

Q&A Library
Over 2,000 questions from you and their corresponding answers from Dr. Weil.

Copyright © 2015 Weil Lifestyle
Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment.

Ad Choice
Advertising Notice

This Site and third parties who place advertisements on this Site may collect and use information about your visits to this Site and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like to obtain more information about these advertising practices and to make choices about online behavioral advertising, please click here