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Former NFL players found to be at greater risk for brain diseases

A study finds that ex-NFL players were four times as likely as other men their age to die of Alzheimer's or ALS. Players who frequently collide at high speeds were found to be at even greater risk.

September 05, 2012|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
  • A postmortem investigation found that former NFL safety Dave Duerson (22) was suffering from advanced neurodegenerative disease at the time of his suicide at the age of 50 in February 2011.
A postmortem investigation found that former NFL safety Dave Duerson (22)… (Associated Press )

As the National Football League kicks off a new season, a study appearing in a leading medical journal underscores the long-term costs of the game on those who play it.

A study tracking 3,439 retired players with five or more seasons in the NFL found these athletes four times as likely as other men their age to die of Alzheimer's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Among the league's "speed players" — those who build up substantial speed before they make a tackle or are brought down by one — the odds of dying of those causes were even greater.

The heightened risk of death from these neurodegenerative disorders was in sharp contrast to an overall picture of remarkable health among the former players. Compared with men in the general population, the NFL veterans were about half as likely to die at any given age.

The study, published Wednesday by the journal Neurology, is the most extensive survey of former athletes since concern about the long-term consequences of repeated blows to the head has become a major safety issue among NFL players.

The NFL has found itself in a precarious legal position amid claims by former players that they were not properly warned of the dangers of head injuries. The players say the blows to the head have contributed to depression, memory loss and other neurological disorders.

Most recently, a postmortem investigation found that former NFL safety Dave Duerson was suffering advanced neurodegenerative disease at the time of his suicide at the age of 50 in February 2011.

About 3,400 former players have sued the NFL over these claims, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. The NFL has asked the courts to throw out some of these suits on the grounds that it's a matter for collective bargaining.

The league denies withholding information about the dangers of concussions, noting that medical experts are still trying to determine the long-term effects of them.

The authors of the new study — a team from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — cited recent research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a buildup in proteins seen in the autopsied brains of former athletes who played a wide range of contact sports. That research, the authors wrote, "now suggests that CTE may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths."

Dr. Ann McKee, a pathologist and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, called the new research "groundbreaking."

The study "opens new avenues for research and validates our neuropathological findings," said McKee, whose autopsies of 15 former NFL athletes have turned up substantial evidence that repeated brain trauma has detrimental effects. "It raises our concern about the risk of CTE, dementia and ALS and the way these conditions overlap."

McKee, whose brain bank has drawn donations from a growing number of former athletes, added that research into the long-term effects of brain trauma "is an issue not just for football players, but also other sports, the military and accidents involving head trauma."

There is little doubt that the claims by former players has forced the NFL to change some of its rules and procedures. Players who suffer concussion-like symptoms must now be cleared by an independent neurologist before returning to either practice or a game. This process often takes several days before a player can rejoin his team.

The league also moved its kickoffs five yards closer to the opponent's end zone last season in the hope of having more touchbacks — the ball being downed without contact and placed at the 20-yard line — to avoid the dangers associated with runbacks, in which players often collide at full speed.

"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," league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement.

"The 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," the statement said.

To that end, the NFL announced Wednesday a $30-million contribution to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to support "research on serious medical conditions prominent in athletes and relevant to the general population." It was the largest philanthropic donation ever made by the NFL in its 92-year history to any single organization.

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