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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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NFL Players at Higher Risk of Brain Diseases

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 5, 2012 -- Former National Football League (NFL) players may have a higher risk of dying from diseases that damage brain cells.

Research has raised red flags about the health risks associated with cumulative blows to the head. Now a new study finds that pro football players are four times more likely to die with Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS), compared to the general population.

The study looked at nearly 3,500 football players with five or more years in the NFL, playing from 1959-1988. There were a total of 334 deaths, including seven with Alzheimer’s and seven with ALS listed on their death certificates.

The new findings appear in the journal Neurology.

Are Repeated Mild Concussions Causing the Risk?

At greatest risk were NFL players who held “speed” positions, such as quarterback, running back, halfback, fullback, and tight end. These players were three times more likely to die from a brain-related disease than their teammates who played non-speed positions, such as defensive and offensive lineman.

Still, there's a lot of information the study can’t provide. For example, researchers did not have information on head injuries or concussions sustained by the players or knowledge about any other risks for these diseases.

The study also did not look at why football players may be at higher risk for dying from these brain diseases. The theory is that repeated blows to the head may start a process that results in one or more brain-damaging disorders in some people.

Past research has linked concussions to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder that has symptoms similar to those of ALS, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease. But it is not yet known if CTE develops independently or is the beginning signs of these diseases.

“There are probably other factors involved, such as other environmental exposures or genetic factors, but we are in the very early stages of knowing how those may be involved,” says researcher Everett Lehman, of the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati.

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