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Former NFLers at Risk for Brain, Mood Problems

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Aging Football Players & Health Status continued...

That rate of depression is about double that expected in the general population of the same age, the researchers say.

Fourteen players had either a mild problem with thinking skills or full-blown dementia.

Those with thinking problems had trouble with findings words. They had memory problems and trouble with naming things.

They also had disruptions in the white matter of the brain, Hart found. He says it is the first time such a link has been found.

This white matter is crucial to allowing information to travel between brain cells.

Hart also found blood flow differences to brain regions linked with skills such as memory or finding words in those who had thinking problems.

Aging Football Players & Brain Health: Explaining

Hart says he can only speculate as to why some players appear more vulnerable to problems with depression and cognitive skills.

It may have to do with the type of concussion, he says. "I don't think there is one clear kind of head injury that leads to problems."

The health problems later may be linked, he speculates, not only to the concussions but also to the continual and repeated shaking of the head that happens during play.

"I think genetics probably can play a complicated but important role," Hart says.

Football Players & Brain Health: Perspective

Eventually, the finding about disruptions in the brain's white matter may help experts measure the effects of concussions, says Daniel Perl, MD, professor of pathology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

He co-wrote an editorial to accompany the study.

The findings reflect a need for more research, Perl says. "This paper is describing abnormalities in the white matter," he says. "The nature is unclear. We need to know what they are on a cellular level."

While the study focused only on former NFL  players, Perl writes that it is possible the problems later on in life ''are not limited to professional football players but may also occur in amateur collegiate athletes and even adolescent and younger players."

"I think we have to be concerned about concussions in anyone," he says, "and we have to be even more concerned about repeated concussions in anyone. These are not trivial events and require proper evaluation and concern."

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