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Depression Health Center

Former NFLers at Risk for Brain, Mood Problems

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Jan. 7, 2013 -- Problems in thinking skills and depression may be more common in former National Football League players compared with other people as they age, according to a new study.

The research suggests the problems may be linked with a history of concussions.

"It's clear that concussions can pose an increased risk of developing cognitive problems and mood problems later in life," says researcher John Hart Jr., MD, medical science director at the Center for Brain Health and director of the Brain Health Institute for Athletes at the University of Texas at Dallas.

However, he says, many players in his small study of 34 former NFL players had no such problems, despite a history of concussion. He can't explain which people might be most vulnerable.

"Half the players we studied had nothing wrong whatsoever," Hart says, "and they had a bunch of concussions."

A concussion is a brain injury that can change a person's behavior, thinking, or functioning for a period of time. In contact sports such as football, it's usually caused by a forceful blow.

Thousands of former NFL players are suing the league, accusing it of concealing information that links football-related injuries to brain damage over the long-term.

Previous studies have also found a link (but not cause and effect) between head trauma in retired football players and thinking and memory problems later.

Guidelines about how to handle concussions in players are now in place for pro, collegiate, and high school athletics.

Aging Football Players & Health Status

Hart and his team studied 34 former NFL players, on average age 62. They self-reported concussions. (All but two had a history of concussions.)  On average, they reported four.

Hart's team gave the players neurological and neuropsychological assessments. Twenty-six players also had neurological imaging tests.

These images were compared with images in 26 healthy men from a comparison group matched for age and other features.

Of the 34 former players, Hart found 20 had normal mental skills. Eight of the 34 had depression. Most had not been treated for depression or been diagnosed with it previously. 

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