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NFL Players at Higher Risk of Brain Diseases

Prevent and Identify Concussions in Athletes

“Our results may not be generalizable to shorter-term professional players or to college or high school players,” Lehman says. NFL players included in the study may have been exposed to more football risk factors than those who had only played high school or college football.

Still, Lehman says, “while we are waiting to see if concussion is one of the causes of [long-term brain damage], we may want to go ahead and take steps to reduce, manage, and effectively treat concussions.”

This includes:

  • Adopting comprehensive concussion policies
  • Developing specific concussion action plans
  • Training athletes and coaches about concussions
  • Reinforcing that it is not OK to play with a concussion
  • Having qualified people available at practices and games to assess and treat concussions

Over the last few years, the NFL has implemented rule changes aimed at reducing concussions, Lehman says. These include moving kickoffs forward to the 35 yard line and increasing penalties for certain blows to the head and neck.

And today the NFL announced it is donating $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to help set up a Sports Health and Research Program that will look into topics such as CTE, concussion, and Alzheimer's.

‘Alarming’ Results

The new study gives some numbers to the problem, says Jagan Pillai, MD, PhD, of the Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic. “It is definitely an important study.”

“This is very alarming,” says Patrick Lyden, MD, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Still many questions remain. “Is it the head trauma or something else about athletes that are behind these numbers?” he asks. “To prove causation, we have to have some high-quality basic science.”

It has long been thought that Lou Gehrig developed ALS from blows to his head during his athletic career, Lyden says.

Gayatri Devi, MD, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, says playing football simply is not good for the brain. “Repeated head injury over long periods of time clearly causes serious brain damage, and this is becoming more apparent as we are living longer.”

Recent news reports have also focused on rates of depression and suicide seen among some pro athletes. “Depression and mood changes can be a harbinger of Alzheimer’s disease down the road, so there may be a link,” she says.

“We need to protect our brains and be more careful when playing games that involve head injuries,” Devi says.” We come with hard heads for a reason.”

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