Football Brain-Injury Data May Show Evidence of Sport's Long-Term Risks

Bloomberg — Football players may be cognitively impaired at a younger age, a study showed, adding evidence to the theory that the head trauma viewed as a natural part of the game may have long-term harm.

The study, presented today by Christopher Randolph of Loyola University in Chicago, found that athletes who play American football showed symptoms of mild brain dysfunction at an earlier age than nonplaying peers. In addition, there was more illness among the retired athletes than in those who were about the same age.

“You don’t play football without getting a concussion,” said Cornelius Bennett, a former linebacker for the Buffalo Bills and head of the retired National Football League Players’ Association. “We’re taught in football that if you can’t play, you lose your job, and if you don’t report concussions, you have a better chance of keeping your job.”

The NFL has pledged $1 million to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to research how to prevent and treat brain injuries. Commissioner Roger Goodell told the league’s 32 clubs that players with concussion symptoms can’t play or practice until cleared by a neurologist and in February imposed a protocol on team doctors and trainers to assess players who may have sustained concussions during games.

Former Player Deaths
Earlier this month, John Mackey, who was ranked by Sports Illustrated as the third-best tight end in NFL history, died after being diagnosed with dementia. Traumatic brain damage was found in autopsies of Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back who killed himself in November 2006 at the age of 44, and former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who killed himself in February at age 50.

The research, released yesterday, was presented today at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris and compares football players with similar non-football players in two groups. One group is 41 healthy control NFL players, matched with 41 retirees of the same age, education, sex and race; the other is 81 non-players who were older than the retired players and whose memory was impaired with a condition called mild cognitive impairment or MCI.

The NFL retirees showed development of cognitive symptoms similar to the non-players with MCI, an intermediate state between normal thought and dementia-related decline. Usually patients experiencing MCI get Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, although MCI can lead to other forms of dementia and some patients never get worse.

In addition, a survey of 513 retired players and their wives found that about 35 percent of players had responses suggesting MCI. The average age of those players was 61.

Confused With Alzheimer’s
The patients may have a kind of dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition that is sometimes confused with Alzheimer’s, which disrupts memory and mental functioning. CTE, like Alzheimer’s, is definitively diagnosed after death by looking for an abnormal variation of a protein that clumps in certain areas of the brain, said Christopher Nowinski, co-director of the Boston University brain center and a former Harvard University football player.

“Earlier surveys this group did were surveys, this is the first to confirm a diagnosis and to evaluate a group in the lab,” said Nowinski. “It’s even stronger evidence that former football players are suffering from cognitive impairment at a higher level than the population.”

Knowing the course of disease progression and what kinds of physiological changes occur in former players can help with prevention and treatment, said Nowinski, who was a professional wrestler before head injuries ended his career.

While Bennett, the head of the former players’ group, has had six concussions listed officially in his medical records, he is sure he’s had more, he said. Bennett plans to donate his brain to Nowinski’s group when he dies, although he hasn’t finished filling out his paperwork, he said.

“I have an 11-year-old son, and if the lack of information and negligence continues, you aren’t going to have moms let their little boys play football,” Bennett said. “This threatens football.”