Brain pressure disorder linked to obesity on the rise

U.K. researchers studying idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH) studied the BMI of patients as well as socioeconomic levels.

Nick Beare 3 minute read January 22, 2021
Brain pressure disorder

A brain pressure disorder, which causes severe headaches and sometimes sight loss, is on the rise with researchers seeing six times as many cases as they did in 2003, according to a new study. 

A team from the Swansea University Medical School in the U.K. suggests the increase in idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH) is linked to obesity and poverty. The condition, which causes increased pressure in the fluid surrounding the brain, is more common in women. 

According to Migraine Canada, symptoms of IIH can include headache, nausea and vomiting, vision loss, double vision and tinnitus. Migraine Canada also suggests a link between people with IIH and migraines: 40 per cent of people with IIH have a history of migraines, which is a much higher amount than the 15 per cent seen within the general population. 

The researchers used anonymized health records of Welsh patients from a national healthcare database. They analyzed 35 million patient years of data from 2003 to 2017 and identified 1,765 people with IIH during that time, 85 per cent of whom were women.  

The study, published in Neurology, recorded the Body Mass Index of the people in the sample and their “deprivation quintile,” estimating their relative socioeconomic level using a standard national scoring system. For each person with IIH, they compared three people with a comparable profile who did not have the condition. 

They found that the number of cases of the disorder over the course of the study went from 12 per 100,000 in 2003 to 76 per 100,000 in 2017 – a six-fold increase. Researchers also found that obesity rates in Wales rose from 29 per cent to 40 per cent over the same period. 

“The considerable increase in idiopathic intracranial hypertension we found may be due to many factors but likely mostly due to rising obesity rates. What is more surprising from our research is that women who experience poverty or other socioeconomic disadvantages may also have an increased risk, independent of obesity,” said Dr. Owen Pickrell, who led the study. 

Women in the most deprived areas had 1.5 times greater risk of developing the disorder than women in the least deprived areas, the study found. 

Rates of hospital admissions were also correlated with the disorder. The study found people with IIH had emergency hospital visits five times more often than people without the disorder. About 9 per cent of people with IIH require brain surgery to try and preserve vision. 

More research is needed to determine the exact socioeconomic factors like diet, smoking, pollution, or stress that can lead to an IIH diagnosis in women. 

At present we don’t know exactly what causes IIH, but the link with deprivation evident in our research could help provide clues,” said Pickrell. 

Our findings offer yet more reasons why it is essential to address the obesity epidemic, deprivation and inequalities in Wales. 

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