by Bill Sloat
Posted In: News
at 03:20 PM | Permalink
Retired football players die at high rates of Alzheimer’s and ALS
So much for glory days on the gridiron. Playing pro
football makes it far more likely than normal a brain can turn into
mush. And there’s elevated likelihood these once powerful bodies will
shut themselves down with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Disturbing new data from the National Institute of
Occupational Safety and Health lab in Cincinnati says retired NFL
players are dying from Alzheimer disease and amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis at rates four times higher than the U.S. population. Other
neurodegenerative diseases kill retired NFL players at about twice the norm.
The study appears in this month’s issue of Neurology, a medical journal affiliated with the American Academy of Neurology.
Overall, retired football players live longer and are
healthier than most Americans, especially the linemen. But some of the
players who passed, caught and defended are clearly beset by excessive
amounts of neurodegenerative disorders later in the lives.
Former quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, receivers,
defensive backs, linebackers and safeties comprise the biggest group of
former players who suffer. All were in the so-called “speed” positions,
players who took hits that included high-acceleration head impacts.
For the pro football study, the Cincinnati-based research
team looked at health records of 3,439 retired NFL players who had five
seasons in the league between 1959 and 1988. The researchers tracked
down 334 death certificates across the nation. Of those, 17 had a
neurodegenerative disorder listed as the cause of death; 14 had been in
(Cardiovascular disease claimed 126 of the ex-NFL players; cancer took 85).
The NIOSH team said their findings add to a growing
collection of evidence that shows football players face an increased
risk of neurodegenerative disease. Most previous studies have focused on
long-term health effects of repeated concussions. Besides finding
increased death rates from Alzheimer’s, ALS (which often is called Lou
Gehrig’s Disease) and Parkinson disease (about three times the national
rate), the Cincinnati scientists raised an entirely new concern. They
said football players have elevated death rates from chronic traumatic
encephalopathy, which is a pathologically distinct neurodegenerative
condition. It sets in years after head-knocking and is linked to a
progressive decline in neuron functioning. It can change the ability to
think and makes it difficult to move about because the brain doesn’t
work as it should.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which goes by the
initials CTE, isn’t reported on many death certificates because the
diagnosis has only been recently recognized.
Everett J. Lehman was lead author of the study; others who
worked on it were Misty Hein, Sherry L. Baron and Christine M. Gersic. The
researchers said their findings cannot be applied to other professional
sports. And the team says more information is needed about the impact
of football injuries:
“Because our cohort was limited to longer-term
professional players, our findings may not be applicable to other
professional and nonprofessional football players. However, recent
autopsy studies have reported pathologic findings of CTE in college-age
and professional football players with relatively short playing careers.
We did not have data on player injuries and conductions. If
chronic mild to moderate concussion is an actual risk factor for
neurodegenerative mortality, the magnitude of the risk may depend on the
intensity and frequency of brain injuries incurred over a number of
years. … Finally, we did not have information on environmental, genetic
or other risk factors for neurologic disorders.”NIOSH did not say it found a cause and effect for the
higher than normal number of Alzheimer and ALS deaths. But the
scientists said they had no doubt “that professional football players
are at an increased risk of death from neurodegenerative causes.”