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Dementia Risk for Retired Football Players?

Study Shows Many Former NFL Players Have Mild Cognitive Impairment

Memory Testing continued...

Forty-one of the players whose AD8 scores indicated cognitive impairment then agreed to be further evaluated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. As part of a clinical trial, they were compared with 41 healthy NFL retirees of similar age, education, and race, and 81 older patients with confirmed MCI who had not played football.

All were given a test called the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), a tool that Randolph himself developed to evaluate patients' language and visual/spatial skills, attention span, and immediate and delayed memory.

"The profile of cognitive impairment [seen in the retired football players] on RBANS was very similar to that of patients with clinically diagnosed MCI," Randolph reports.

He cited as an example their scores on a question dealing with delayed memory -- the ability to recall something from the past. Higher scores indicate better performance.

The MCI patients had an average score of 75, which put them in about the fifth percentile of normal for their age, he says. Retired NFL players with suspected cognitive impairment had average scores in the mid-80s, which falls into about the 15th percentile of normal. The healthy retirees had scores of about 100, which is normal for their age, he says.

Despite their below average scores on RBANS, the retired NFL players with suspected cognitive impairment "were still highly functioning, with an average IQ of 106," Randolph says.

The findings should be considered preliminary, he says. Many retired football players have other conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes that are risk factors for cognitive impairment.

While there are competing hypotheses regarding how repetitive head injury might raise the risk of cognitive disorders later in life, Randolph says he believes cell loss chips into our cognitive reserve -- the extra capacity that you have to accomplish tasks mentally. You can think of cognitive reserve as your brain's savings account to reach into in times of hardship; we all have some reserves, some more than others.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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