Research published in the medical journal Neurology shows that professional football players may have a higher risk of dying from diseases that damage the cells of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), when compared to the general population.
The research, which was led by Everett J. Lehman, MS, and supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, included 3,439 players from the NFL. The average age of the players was 57, and each had played at least five seasons of football between 1959 and 1988. Researchers reviewed the death certificates of the participants that passed away, which was 10 percent.
The findings show that professional football players are three times more likely to die from diseases that damage the brain cells than the general population. They are also four times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), but show no increased risk of dying because of Parkinson’s disease. Of the 334 football players that passed away, seven died of ALS and seven as a result of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers divided the participants into two categories. The first category was for for non-line or speed players, which included quarterbacks, running backs, half backs, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties, and linebackers. The second category followed non-speed positions, which included defensive and offensive linemen. The speed position players were found to be at least three times more susceptible to death by neurodegenerative diseases.
“These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” said Lehman. “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.”
The NFL announced that it would donate $30 million to support research on the medical conditions that affect football players, which include concussions and neurodegenerative diseases.
“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,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “This research will extend beyond the NFL playing field and benefit athletes at all levels and others, including members of our military.”