Currently, more than 2,000 former pro football players are suing the NFL with claims that the league “downplayed and misrepresented the issues and misled players concerning the risks associated with concussions.”
On the heels of the growing understanding of the connection between football players’ numerous concussions and permanent learning and memory decline, a new study suggests that NFL pros may have an increased risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
The study involved nearly 3500 NFL players involved in league play between 1959 and 1988. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has followed the group since the early 1990s. The NFL had asked the institute to evaluate the players for their risk of cardiovascular disease.
More recently, the authors of the study decided to evaluate the autopsies of 334 players for neurological outcomes. “We looked at all the death certificates, and Parkinson’s Alzheimer’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) had significant contribution to the death,” said study co-author Everett Lehman.
Among the 334 players, seven died from Alzheimer’s and another seven from ALS at an average age of 57.
Though the numbers are small, Lehman explains, “These are generally rare diseases, especially at the younger age. Even when looking at the general population, you’re generally going to have small numbers.”
Compared to offensive and defensive linemen, players involved in high-speed positions were more than three times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases. At highest risk were quarterbacks, running backs, halfbacks, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties and linebackers.
Jeffrey Kutcher, associate professor of neurology, cautions that care must be taken not to assume cause and effect (high velocity positions = concussions = early death) where cause and effect may not exist.
He asks, “Are these increased risks because of exposure to contact? In their words, there’s an assumption that there is causality there. I think a general lifestyle of playing at a competitive level is abusive. It’s hard to do physically and mentally.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease diagnosed post-mortem in individuals with a history of multiple concussions—such as Owen Thomas, University of Pennsylvania offensive lineman.
Research shows commonalities with ALS and Alzheimer’s disease, and co-author Lehman said, “CTE may be one of the outcomes or causes, but we just can’t tell.”
In agreement with Lehman is Dr Bob Stern, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University. “In general, it provides further evidence that repetitive brain trauma is associated with the development of neurodegenerative disease, like CTE, later in life.”
The NFL released this statement regarding the study: “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.”
This week the league announced it had awarded a $30,000,000 unrestricted grant to the National Institutes of Health for research into CTE, concussion management and treatment, and to examine the relationship between traumatic brain injuries and late-life neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Source: Discovery News, September 5, 2012 CNN, September 6, 2012 Study published in Neurology, September 5, 2012