The men who play America’s favorite sport, football, may be doing so at a grave risk to their health.
In the largest study of its kind, “objective evidence” has found that almost half of retired NFL players currently suffer from brain trauma caused by the repetitive blows inherent in the sport, Reuters reported.
More than 40 percent of those studied showed signs of traumatic brain injury, or “trauma to the brain caused by an outside force,” according to Live Science. That is a precursor to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease already found in 59 athletes after death.
CTE has been linked to aggression, dementia, and is blamed for the suicides of several athletes. Currently, CTE can only be found after death.
“What we do know is that players with (TBI) have a high incidence of going on to develop neurological degenerative disease later on in life,” said neurologist and study author Dr. Francis X. Condi.
This study is ground-breaking because it represents the first time scientists have examined a large number of living athletes. Condi called it “one piece of the puzzle” as scientists try to figure out how football and brain trauma are linked.
“This is one of the largest studies to date in living, retired NFL players and one of the first to demonstrate significant, objective evidence for traumatic brain injury. The rate of traumatic brain injury was significantly higher in (them) than that found in the general population.”
The average age of those studied was 36, and most had been retired for about five years or less. They played an average of seven years and suffered eight concussions. A dozen of them experienced several subconcussive hits, or head blows slightly less serious than a concussion.
The men were given two types of brain scans and thinking and memory tests. In the first, 40 subjects were given diffusion tensor imaging scans, which measure water flow between the parts of the brain. Trauma was revealed in 17 people.
That rate is three times higher than the general population.
Traditional MRIs revealed evidence of brain trauma in 12 of the men, or 30 percent, caused by the “disruption of parts of nerve cells that allow brain cells to transmit messages to each other,” LiveScience explained.
Further, the study determined that the longer an athlete was in the NFL, the greater the chance that he’d develop brain trauma. The study didn’t find a link between trauma and the number of diagnosed concussions.
The effect this damage has on the retired players studied is sobering. It ruined executive function, or the ability to plan and manage time, in about half the men. About 45 percent had memory or learning problems, and 42 percent had trouble maintaining concentration.
The study hints that the repeated and violent hits that are part of both games, and practices are just as risky as the most dramatic collisions that lead to concussions. Those who play in offensive and defensive line positions are most at risk.
The NFL can lessen the risk by removing tackling from practice, which Ivy League football programs have started to enact.
CTE was first discovered by Nigerian pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose findings resulted in 5,000 former athletes suing the NFL. They claimed that the league hid the dangers; the case is tied up in the courts but could cost $1 billion.
In January, Dr. Omalu said that he believes O.J. Simpson could suffer from CTE.
Although his comments were made without examining Simpson, he went so far as to say, “I would bet my medical license on it. He was exposed to thousands of blunt-force trauma of his brain.”
Simpson himself admitted to suffering thousands of blows during his career.
[Image via Herbert Kratky/Shutterstock]