Link Between Football, Dementia Continues to be in Headlines

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • It’s not surprising that the family of National Football League star linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest last year, is suing the league over long-term damage caused by concussions. This decision comes on the heels of the announcement that Seau had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to violent hits he sustained while playing.


    The lawsuit, which was filed in California Superior Court, states that the NFL’s “acts or omissions” covered up the dangers of repeated blows to the head. Furthermore, the lawsuit accuses the NFL of deliberately ignoring and concealing evidence related to the risks associated with these types of traumatic brain injuries. The Seau family also has included Riddell Inc., which manufactures NFL football helmets, in the lawsuit, stating the company was “negligent in their design, testing, assembly, manufacture, marketing and engineering of the helmets.”

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    “While Junior always expected to have aches and pains from his playing days, none of us ever fathomed that he would suffer a debilitating brain disease that would cause him to leave us too soon,” the Seau family said in a statement. They hope that the lawsuit will send a message to the NFL that they need to care for former players, acknowledge the issue of head injuries that are related to the sport, and work on creating a safer game for future players.

    The league is beginning to get the message, but it’s clear that former players already are trying to learn as much as they can. For instance, a new study  looked at cognitive impairment and depression in aging former NFL players who volunteered as participants. The study, which was conducted in a research center in North Texas, involved 34 former players whose average age was 61 These participants underwent both neurological and neuropsychological assessments. Of those players, 26 went through additional detailed neuroimaging assessments that were then compared with 26 people with healthy brains who had never played collegiate or professional football and who had never had a concussion.

    The researchers found that 20 of the 34 former NFL players were cognitively normal. Of those 20 players, four were diagnosed with a fixed cognitive deficit while eight had mild cognitive impairment. Two of the former players had dementia and eight had depression. The researchers pointed out that the prevalence of depression among the study’s retired players (24 percent) was higher than what was expected for men in this age group (15 percent), which suggests that there needs to be screening for depression as well as cognitive dysfunction in retired athletes.

    The researchers also found that the subgroup who participated in neuroimaging assessment, the cognitively impaired participants had the greatest deficits when tested on naming, word finding, and visual/verbal episodic memory. The researchers found significant differences in abnormalities in the brain’s white matter between cognitive impaired retired players as well as depressed retired players when compared to the images of the healthy brains in the control group.


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    The researchers also saw differences in blood flow in the brain between the cognitively impaired group; these differences in brain flow were related to the parts of the brain that are associated with memory, naming and word finding.

    This study, while small, does hold a lot of value. In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Ramon Diaz-Arrastia, who is the director of clinical research at the center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and Dr. Daniel Perl, a professor of pathology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences wrote,  “The main value of the study is that it potentially identifies a novel target for measuring disease progression and developing therapies."


    And the sooner those therapies are developed, the better. Dr. Diaz-Arrastia and Dr. Perl expressed concern that the serious neurologic damage caused by repeated mild traumatic brain injuries may occur in amateur collegiate athletes, adolescent athletes and younger players as well as NFL players. Therefore, more research of this nature needs to be conducted to protect the brains of the NFL stars who are playing in the Super Bowl as well as my next door neighbor, who plays football for the local high school.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Diaz-Arrastia, R. & Perl, D. (2013). Cognitive dysfunction and contact sports. JAMA Neurology.

    Hart, J., et al. (2013). Neuroimaging of cognitive dysfunction and depression in aging retired National Football League players; A cross-sectional study. JAMA Neurology.

    Houston Chronicle. (2013). Seau’s family sues league, claims wrongful death.

Published On: January 26, 2013