NFL on the Brain: Football Players May Have a Higher Risk of Alzheimer’s and ALS

While a study shows former players have greater odds of developing brain diseases, the NFL donates to research.

Football players may be more susceptible to neurdegenerative diseases than the general population, a study finds. (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Sep 5, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

On the same day that the National Football League announced a $30 million donation to the National Institutes of Health for brain research, a study was released suggesting NFL players may be at higher risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease and ALS.

The study, published online in the journal Neurology, found a link between professional football players and higher odds of death from diseases that damage brain cells, compared to the general population. The study follows previous research showing links between sports-related head injuries and cognitive problems.

This study included 3,439 players, average age 57, who were in the NFL for at least five playing seasons from 1959 to 1988. Deaths from Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease were noted and compared with a representative sample from the population.

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Ten percent of the players died. Researchers discovered that pro football players were three times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases compared with non-players, and players’ death risk from Alzheimer’s disease and ALS was almost four times higher than it was among non-players. The risk of death from Parkinson's disease wasn't much different from rates in the general population.

Football players who were in speed positions, such as quarterback, halfback, fullback, running back and linebacker, had triple the risk of death from brain degeneration than those who played non-speed positions like defensive and offensive lineman.

“These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” co-author Everett Lehman said in a news release.

The authors wrote that the study had a number of limitations, such as a small sample size. Researchers also lacked information on the numbers of injuries and concussions the players sustained over the years, which may be a risk factor for developing neurodegenerative diseases.

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Also, no cause and effect was proved, just a relationship. The players who died didn’t undergo autopsies to determine if they had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological condition that could affect athletes who sustain head injuries during play.

Symptoms of the CTE include depression, aggression, memory loss and confusion.

“Although our study looked at causes of death from Alzheimer’s disease and ALS as shown on death certificates,” Lehman said, “research now suggests that chronic traumatic encephalopathy may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths.”

Some athletes have shown evidence of the disease through autopsies, such as former National Hockey League player Derek Boogard. After dying in 2011 from a drug overdose, his brain was autopsied at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

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In its grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of health, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, “We hope this grant will help accelerate the medical community's pursuit of pioneering research to enhance the health of athletes past, present and future. This research will extend beyond the NFL playing field and benefit athletes at all levels and others, including members of our military.”

Although the research plans have not been fully developed, the statement said “potential areas” include CTE, concussion management and treatment and sudden cardiac death and heat-related illnesses.

But the donation may not be enough to satisfy some former players and NFL fans. In June ABC News reported that more than 2,000 former NFL players sued the league, claiming they hid information that tied player injuries to long-term brain damage. The NFL denies the allegations.

The Washington Post reported that the $30 million comes out of $100 the NFL earmarked for medical research, part of the NFL and the NFL Players Association labor deal.

While some applauded the league, others took them to task. Comments on the Washington Post story included, “Its [sic] most likely just a PR move. The NFL has been hit pretty hard about the player concussions controversy. Ergo before the lawsuits they have to try and make like they're the good guys.”

Another person wrote, “Why doesn't the NFL take the $30M and pay the medical bills of players who were injured because the NFL was negligent in providing helmets that worked. All those years of banging heads and where was the NFL? Such deceit on the part of the NFL causes me to reach for indigestion pills.”

Do you think former football players are being fairly compensated for their injuries? Let us know in the comments.

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