Background: Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the leading cause of disability and mortality in children and young adults worldwide. It remains unclear, however, how TBI in childhood and adolescence is associated with adult mortality, psychiatric morbidity, and social outcomes.
Methods and findings: In a Swedish birth cohort between 1973 and 1985 of 1,143,470 individuals, we identified all those who had sustained at least one TBI (n = 104,290 or 9.1%) up to age 25 y and their unaffected siblings (n = 68,268) using patient registers. We subsequently assessed these individuals for the following outcomes using multiple national registries: disability pension, specialist diagnoses of psychiatric disorders and psychiatric inpatient hospitalisation, premature mortality (before age 41 y), low educational attainment (not having achieved secondary school qualifications), and receiving means-tested welfare benefits. We used logistic and Cox regression models to quantify the association between TBI and specified adverse outcomes on the individual level. We further estimated population attributable fractions (PAF) for each outcome measure. We also compared differentially exposed siblings to account for unobserved genetic and environmental confounding. In addition to relative risk estimates, we examined absolute risks by calculating prevalence and Kaplan-Meier estimates. In complementary analyses, we tested whether the findings were moderated by injury severity, recurrence, and age at first injury (ages 0-4, 5-9, 6-10, 15-19, and 20-24 y). TBI exposure was associated with elevated risks of impaired adult functioning across all outcome measures. After a median follow-up period of 8 y from age 26 y, we found that TBI contributed to absolute risks of over 10% for specialist diagnoses of psychiatric disorders and low educational attainment, approximately 5% for disability pension, and 2% for premature mortality. The highest relative risks, adjusted for sex, birth year, and birth order, were found for psychiatric inpatient hospitalisation (adjusted relative risk [aRR] = 2.0; 95% CI: 1.9-2.0; 6,632 versus 37,095 events), disability pension (aRR = 1.8; 95% CI: 1.7-1.8; 4,691 versus 29,778 events), and premature mortality (aRR = 1.7; 95% CI: 1.6-1.9; 799 versus 4,695 events). These risks were only marginally attenuated when the comparisons were made with their unaffected siblings, which implies that the effects of TBI were consistent with a causal inference. A dose-response relationship was observed with injury severity. Injury recurrence was also associated with higher risks-in particular, for disability pension we found that recurrent TBI was associated with a 3-fold risk increase (aRR = 2.6; 95% CI: 2.4-2.8) compared to a single-episode TBI. Higher risks for all outcomes were observed for those who had sustained their first injury at an older age (ages 20-24 y) with more than 25% increase in relative risk across all outcomes compared to the youngest age group (ages 0-4 y). On the population level, TBI explained between 2%-6% of the variance in the examined outcomes. Using hospital data underestimates milder forms of TBI, but such misclassification bias suggests that the reported estimates are likely conservative. The sibling-comparison design accounts for unmeasured familial confounders shared by siblings, including half of their genes. Thus, residual genetic confounding remains a possibility but will unlikely alter our main findings, as associations were only marginally attenuated within families.
Conclusions: Given our findings, which indicate potentially causal effects between TBI exposure in childhood and later impairments across a range of health and social outcomes, age-sensitive clinical guidelines should be considered and preventive strategies should be targeted at children and adolescents.