New Study: NFL Players More At-Risk for Alzheimer's Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Recently I saw the cover shot of the September 10 issue Sports Illustrated that featured Chicago Bears’ former quarterback Jim McMahon and his girlfriend, Laurie Navon. With the title “The Women Behind the Retired NFL Men Who Suffer from Brain Trauma, the article focuses on the challenges that Navon has faced since she started noticing changes in the award-winning quarterback’s behavior in early 2007. He has since been tested and diagnosed with early onset dementia.

    I haven’t read the story yet, but I did go online to watch an ESPN video of McMahon talking about his memory problems. It was sad to hear him say that he probably wouldn’t remember much of the interview 10 minutes after it happened. And McMahon, who retired from the game in 1996, is worried that he may soon lose his way home when he goes for a drive.

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    It turns out that McMahon is not alone in having this type of health battle. Researchers have published a new study that found that the physical beating that professional football players (especially those in speed positions) take makes them more likely to die from a variety of conditions caused by brain-cell damage, including Alzheimer’s disease. That finding, while not surprising, was just published in Neurology.

    Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Ohio looked at data from 3,439 former professional football players whose average was 57.  These players had competed for at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988 in the National Football League. The researchers combed through death certifications of 334 of the study participants who had died, looking specifically for whether the death was caused by Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, which is often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

    The researchers found that of the group that died, seven had Alzheimer’s disease and seven had Lou Gehrig’s disease. A press release by the American Academy of Neurology notes that the study’s findings mean that professional football players who were part of the study were three times more likely to die  due to diseases that damage brain cells than the general public. Furthermore, the player’s risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was approximately four times higher than the general population. However, the risk of dying from Parkinson’s disease was not found to be significantly different from that of the general population.

    As part of their analysis, the researchers categorized players by position played to see if that made any difference. One group called “speed” positions was made up of players who didn’t play on the line. This group included quarterbacks, running backs, halfbacks, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties and linebackers. The second category was non-speed positions, made up of defensive and offensive lineman. The researchers found that 62 percent of the layers who died were in speed positions. That means that players in speed positions were more than three times more likely to die from a disease related to brain injury than non-speed position players.

  • “These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” said study author Everett J. Lehman, MS, with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati. “Although our study looked at causes of death from Alzheimer’s disease and ALS as shown on death certificates, research now suggests that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths. A brain autopsy is necessary to diagnose CTE and distinguish it from Alzheimer's or ALS. While CTE is a separate diagnosis, the symptoms are often similar to those found in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, and can occur as the result of multiple concussions.”

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    So what does this mean for you and me? Well, my next door neighbor is a high school freshman who is playing tight end for the school’s football team. I’m going to make sure to reinforce proper tackling technique and also the signs of a concussion. I want him to know that while the sport is fun, it also can lead to dire health issues if he isn’t careful.  In other words, I want him to do well on the gridiron, but also be able to live a long, happy and healthy life.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    American Academy of Neurology. (2012). NFL players may be at higher risk of death from Alzheimer’s and ALS.

    ESPN. (2012). Jim McMahon espn 2012. Video.

    Mitchell, F. (2012). Ex-Bears QB McMahon on SI cover about brain trauma. Chicago Tribune.

Published On: September 06, 2012