PBS Show Documents Close Link Between Football, Form of Dementia
“He looked at me and he said, ‘Leigh, where am I?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re in the hospital.’ And he said, ‘Well, why am I here?’ And I said, “Because you suffered a concussion today.’ And he said, ‘Well, who did we play?’ And I said, ‘The 49ers.’ And he said, ‘Did we win?’ ‘Yes, you won.’ ‘Did I play well?’ ‘Yes, you played well.’ ‘And so what’s that mean?’ ‘It means you’re going to the Super Bowl.’”
Sports agent Leigh Steinberg, the go-to sports agent for NFL superstars during the 1990s who served as the template for the main character in the movie “Jerry Maguire," recalled this conversation with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who had been knocked out of the 1994 National Football Conference championship by having his bell rung.” The conversation happened in a darkened room at the local hospital, because Aikman couldn’t stand to be in the light.
Five minutes later, Aikman begins asking the same questions of Steinberg. “For a minute I thought he was joking. Then I went through the same sequence of answers,” the former agent said. Then 10 minutes later, the quarterback asked the same sequence of questions of his agent.
That recounting of the conversation during PBS Frontline’s “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” reminded me of so many discussions with my mother when she had mild cognitive impairment and before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Yet instead of getting Alzheimer’s disease, many players who have gotten their bell rung may be developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The documentary highlighted CTE, which was discovered in the brain of Pittsburg Steeler center Mike Webster in 2002. Frontline points out that since that initial discovery, researchers at Boston University have identified 50 more cases in football players. One of these cases was diagnosed in a 17-year-old football player.
The Boston University researchers have identified four stages of CTE, which is a degenerative disease. These stages are:
- Stage 1- Isolated areas of tau develop primarily around the frontal lobe, which is the crown of the head. The tau forms around the brain’s blood vessels, thus interrupting normal function. The tau will eventually kill nerve cells.
- Stage 2- Symptoms start to appear. In this stage, defective tau protein is interfering with more nerve cells in the frontal lobes of the brain.
- Stage 3 – Confusion and memory loss are part of this stage. The Tau deposits increase, moving from the frontal lobe to the temporal section of the brain, which is located on the side. CTE begins to impair the amygdala and the hippocampus, thus effecting emotion and memory.
- Stage 4 – The person has advanced dementia by now. The tau deposits have killed many nerve cells and overwhelmed the brain. The brain’s size is not roughly half of it was before CTE. The brain is deformed and brittle; in addition, cognitive function is severely limited.
Many of these stages sound really similar to Alzheimer’s disease. So what is the difference? Terry Zeigler of SportsMD.com pointed out that researchers have found that CTE is linked to repeated trauma, which is a clear environmental cause whereas Alzheimer’s disease is thought to have a genetic cause. “In other words, CTE is the only preventable form of dementia,” Zeigler stated. Sports that have been found to have cases of CTE among athletes include contact sports such as boxing, wrestling, soccer, rugby, hockey, lacrosse, soccer and skiing (as well as football).
Therefore, I hope that anyone who has a loved one playing one of these sports will have a heartfelt discussion about the dangers of participation as well as ways to limit the possibility of head traumas that could lead to CTE. In these cases, taking a proactive and vigilant stance is going to be the best way to prevent devastating brain damage.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Breslow, J. M. (2013). How one client’s concussion shook the real “Jerry Maguire.” PBS Frontline.
PBS. (2013). League of denial: The NFL’s concussion crisis. Frontline.
Wexler, E. (2013). How CTE affects the brain. PBS Frontline.
Zeigler, T. (nd). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). SportsMD.com.