There’s growing evidence that repeated hits to the head in football, hockey, and other sports can lead to early-onset dementia and a brain disease called CTE. Now, there are concerns that victims of domestic abuse -- a much larger group -- could be at risk of dementia too.

Dr. Don Weaver, a senior scientist with the Toronto Western Research Institute, has long suspected that battered women were at a higher risk of dementia. He says he has had several patients who had survived abuse but had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

"Their children would say, ‘My mother was struck by my dad years ago. Do you think that is a contributing factor to our mother getting Alzheimer’s disease?'" he told CTV News.

His concerns prompted him to conduct a small study in 2006. It found that women who developed dementia were more likely to have been physically abused. But little research has happened in the decade since.

"I do find it frustrating that this is an important problem and it is an important problem that requires additional evaluation and additional study," he said.

Weaver notes that there are currently 750,000 Canadians with Alzheimer’s disease and there is a new diagnosis every five minutes in Canada. For many of these patients, it’s thought that smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and cognitive inactivity contribute to their illness, but it’s possible that head trauma from family violence could be another cause.

With police saying there were at least 88,000 victims of domestic violence in 2013 – and perhaps many more who didn’t call police -- the numbers at risk of brain disease later in life could be enormous.

"There is a significant number of women who are, unfortunately, in a relationship that has spousal abuse. If it is one in 10 in our society, that is a massive risk factor for the development of dementia and that is a risk factor that we really need to address," he said.

Ottawa-area resident Susan Haines says she is concerned. She suffered head trauma at the hands of an abusive partner and now fears for the future.

"It worries me because if I have had a concussion, I certainly don't want hear the news that my odds have increased by X per cent that I may get early onset dementia or dementia," she said.

Halina Haag, with the faculty of social work at Wilfred Laurier University, is one of the few researchers investigating this problem of brain trauma among domestic abuse victims and says it deserves more study.

"I think this is something that people don’t know about, they don’t make a connection," she said. "It is really only surfacing in the last few years in the brain injury research world… So yes, this is an area that has been under-researched and under-explored."

She says research suggests that anywhere from 35 to 80 per cent of female survivors of violence have experienced a traumatic brain injury from a hit to the head. She adds that women’s shelters may need to start screening residents for brain injuries.

"We need to develop tools for diagnosis that are sensitive to (the) domestic violence environment and that can be easily used by people who are not brain injury specialists," she said.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip