National Football League players were three times as likely as the general population to die of disorders that damage brain cells, according to a U.S. study that may fuel further calls to curb violence in the sport.
A review of death certificates and medical records from 3,439 retired athletes showed they had a four-times higher risk than the general population for two conditions -- Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease -- according to the study released today in the journal Neurology. Players in “speed positions” such as running backs and wide receivers were even more likely to die from brain disorders, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati said in an accompanying statement.
The NFL, which opens its 2012 season tonight, faces lawsuits from more than 2,000 former players seeking damages for head injuries, while the Pop Warner youth football league said in June that it would limit contact to reduce the risk of concussions.
While the study doesn’t prove that football-related concussions cause neurological deaths, “these results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” Everett J. Lehman, the lead author and a researcher at the institute, said in the statement.
The NFL today said it would give $30 million for medical research to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, in what the league called the biggest donation in its 92-year history. The money, to be overseen by the NIH, may be used to research brain injuries, concussion management and other topics, the football league said.
Last year, the league ordered team doctors and trainers to assess players who have sustained concussions during games after issuing new guidelines on head injuries in 2007. The NFL has denied accusations in the lawsuits that it withheld information about the dangers from players.
Today’s study “underscores the continuing need to invest in research, education and advocacy, strengthen and enforce our rules on player safety and do all we can to make our game safer,” Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We remain committed to doing all that we can.”
George Atallah, a spokesman for the NFL Players Association, said he couldn’t comment for the union until he’d reviewed the study.
Researchers studied the records of retired NFL athletes who had played at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988. The conclusions were limited because only 10 percent of the participants had passed away at the time of the analysis, Lehman said in the statement.
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