Pro Football Players Suffer High Incidences Of Long-Term Brain Disorders
September 6, 2012

Pro Football Players Suffer High Incidences Of Long-Term Brain Disorders

John Neumann for - Your Universe Online

A new study suggests that professional football players are three times more likely to have neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer´s disease than the general population. That number jumped to four times the risk when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig´s disease, was considered.

The study, published Wednesday in the medical journal Neurology, surveyed nearly 3,500 retired NFL players who were in the league between 1959 and 1988.

The study is an offshoot of research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health when the NFL asked the institute to evaluate them for their risk of cardiovascular disease in the early 1990´s, writes Nadia Kounang for CNN.

Looking at the causes of death for 334 players, researchers found a high incidence of neurodegenerative diseases. “We looked at all the death certificates, and Parkinson´s, Alzheimer´s and ALS had significant contribution to the death,” according to study co-author Elliot Lehman.

Researchers suspect they could be looking at the long-term consequences of repeat concussions during players´ careers. “This study cannot establish cause-and-effect,” Lehman continued.

“We did not have data on concussions.” But, Lehman said, other studies have found links between repeat concussions and an increased risk of neurologic disorders, including memory impairment.

The average age of the 334 pro footballers who had died was 57. Seven had died from Alzheimer´s and another seven with ALS. Three players had died with Parkinson´s disease however that number was not significantly higher than the general population.

Researchers wanted to determine if these risks differed by position played. Players were divided into two groups: those who played non-line (“speed”) positions which included quarterbacks, running backs, halfbacks, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties and linebackers, and those who played line (“non-speed”) positions, which included defensive and offensive linemen.

Results indicate that speed position players were more than three times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative cause than non-speed position players. A total of 62 percent of the players were in speed positions.

“These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” said study author Everett J. Lehman, MS, with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati.

“Although our study looked at causes of death from Alzheimer´s disease and ALS as shown on death certificates, research now suggests that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths. A brain autopsy is necessary to diagnose CTE and distinguish it from Alzheimer´s or ALS.”

“While CTE is a separate diagnosis, the symptoms are often similar to those found in Alzheimer´s, Parkinson´s and ALS, and can occur as the result of multiple concussions.”

Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute and chair of the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board, cautioned that the study is small but would like to expand it, “A study like this is very limited in its scope and how deep they can dig down. It´s merely an observation in reporting in cause and death, and you can only draw so much -- but it supports in general a trend that we´ve seen, that neurodegenerative disease impacts football players.”

Dr. Bob Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University, agrees. “In general, it provides further evidence that repetitive brain trauma is associated with the development of neurodegenerative disease, like CTE, later in life,” he said.

The NFL, responded with the issue by awarding a $30 million unrestricted grant to the National Institutes of Health to support research into CTE, concussion management and treatment and said in a statement, “Well before this study was released, the NFL took significant steps to address head injuries in football, provide medical and financial assistance to our retired players, and raise awareness of the most effective ways to prevent, manage and treat concussions.”