It’s football season. And that means this modern-day gladiator sport will probably result in more concussions, which may eventually lead to dementia. I’ve already seen news reports of pro players who have been sidelined because of this type of brain trauma, even though it's only the preseason.
And while we primarily think of concussions as being a danger for those professional players, here’s a wake-up call for you – a 17-year-old high school football player was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That fancy diagnosis actually means that this player has a progressive degenerative brain disease that is found in people (such as athletes) who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma results in progressive degeneration of the brain’s tissue and causes a build-up of tau, the abnormal protein that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The person with CTE can start having changes in the brain within a few months after the blow or these changes can emerge decades after the last event that caused trauma to the brain. And according to Boston University’s Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE can result in memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, issues with impulse control, aggression, depression and dementia.
Most young men that I know still want to play. So are there ways they can be protected? The answer is probably so. Here are some positive things that are happening:
- Rule changes are happening across the board. For instance, the National Football League adopted a new rule on helmet hits. The rule penalizes players for hitting opponents with the crown of their helmet. In addition, the rule prohibits runners as well as defenders from lowering their helmets and hitting opposing players outside of the tackle box, which is defined as the area between the two offensive tackles. These types of hits will result in a 15-yard penalty from the place where the foul occurred. Hits made inside the tackle box will not fall under the new guidelines. The NCAA also has created new football rules in order to prevent concussions. For instance, targeting and hitting defenseless players above the shoulders will result in a 15-yard penalty as well as an ejection from the game.
- Some football helmets are being fitted with sensors and accelerometers that are embedded in chin straps and mouth guards. In addition, there are helmet-mounted monitors that can trigger an alarm when a football player takes a blow at a specific G-force level.
- Some oversight groups, such as the University Interscholastic League in Texas have adopted 90-minute weekly limits on in-season drills that are full-contact per player.
- Major initiatives are being started to highlight the importance of proper tackling technique. I just wrote a post on HealthCentral’s diet and exercise site about the Hit Count Initiative, which is aimed at youth football. Additionally, a Dallas Morning News story pointed to the Heads Up Football program, created by USA football, the sport’s national governing body. This program teaches young football players that proper tackling technique does not involve tackling with the head or any part of the face; this goes against previous generations, who learned to tackle by putting their face mask into the opposing player. This previously-taught technique increased the impact to the head. The Heads Up program also is designed to reduce the risk of neck injuries.
These efforts are a big step in helping football players remain safe while participating in a sport they love. And for those fans who think that football players are being turned into big sissies due to these changes, I’d like to give you an invitation to visit residents an Alzheimer’s facility. Seeing what someone’s life is like with dementia should serve as a game-changer in understanding why these rule changes and initiatives are so necessary.