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Gene J. Puskar/AP
Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, pictured in 1988.

NFL Study Acknowledges High Risk of Dementia for Players

October 02, 2009 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
An NFL-commissioned study found that retired players suffer from dementia and other memory-related diseases at many times the normal rate. The findings support prior independent research that the NFL has tried to discredit.

NFL Study Finds High Rates of Dementia-Related Symptoms in Retired Players

A study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that retired players are being diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other memory-related diseases at a drastically higher rate than the general population. Players aged 30-49 are diagnosed with memory diseases at 19 times the normal rate.

The findings, which have yet to be peer-reviewed, support prior research on football players and brain injuries. This one is significant because it was commissioned by the NFL, which has questioned the accuracy of prior findings. In a recent article for GQ, Jeanne Marie Laskas chronicled the NFL’s attempts intimidate neuropathologist Bennet Omalu and discredit his research.

The NFL’s reluctance to accept the link between football and brain injuries is in large part due to concerns over its disability plan. The NFL and NFL Players Association have resisted awarding disability claims to retired players with brain injuries, asserting that there is not enough evidence to proof that the injuries were suffered by playing football. The results of the study will put pressure on the NFL to finally admit that there is a link.

Retired guard Brent Boyd, who has symptoms of dementia after suffering multiple concussions during his career, told The New York Times, “I was told once that the owners would never open up this can of worms—approving any connection between brain injuries with N.F.L. football. Now that claim is clear to any reasonable person. I don’t think there’s any way they can make their case anymore. I’d like to see how they try to weasel out of it this time.”

Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, played down the connection in an e-mail to the Times, writing that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”

Background: Concussions and brain injuries

Many studies this decade have documented the effects of playing football on the brain. For example, studies released by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina in 2003 and 2005 found that retired players had much higher rates of depression and symptoms of Alzheimer’s than the general population.

The most serious condition facing football players is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), also known as pugilistica dementia, a syndrome caused by repeated blows to the head. It was previously associated only with boxers until it was identified in the brain of former Steelers center Mike Webster, who suffered from dementia before dying in 2002.

“Initially CTE sufferers may display clinical symptoms such as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control,” explains the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, a program at the Boston University School of Medicine. “CTE eventually progresses to full-blown dementia.”

Bennet Omalu examined Webster’s brain and found large amounts of tau proteins, which acted in “killing cells in regions responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning,” writes Laskas in GQ. Tau is found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, but not nearly at the level found in Webster’s brain.

Since this discovery, CTE has been identified in 17 deceased former NFL players, according to Omalu. In most cases, the player experienced serious personality and behavior changes, and died young.

Neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, a colleague of Omalu, explained to Laskas how players, particularly linemen, suffer damage to theirs brains over their careers: “The brain has a certain amount of play inside the skull. It’s buoyed up in the cerebral spinal fluid. It sits in this fluid, floats. When the head suddenly stops, the brain continues, reverberates back. So when I hit, boom, my skull stops, but my brain continues forward for about a centimeter. Boom, boom, it reverberates back. … And a lot of these injuries are rotational. The fibers get torn with rotation.”

Younger players are also in danger of developing CTE. In January 2009, the CSTE discovered that an 18-year-old football player, who had suffered multiple concussions, had the early signs of CTE.

Sean Morey of the Arizona Cardinals, a strong proponent of brain research who has bequeathed his brain to the CSTE, told The New York Times that the NFL study has consequences reaching beyond the NFL. “This is about more than us—it’s about the high school kid in 2011 who might not die on the field because he ignored the risks of concussions,” he said.

Reference: Research of brain injuries


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