Study: Overweight Ex-Football Players Put Brain at Risk

Retired Pro Football Players Have Worse Brain Function if They Are Overweight

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 17, 2012
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Jan. 17, 2012 -- Being overweight in retirement may be especially dangerous for professional football players exposed to multiple impacts to the head and concussions in the sport.

A new study suggests that being overweight increases the risk of brain functioning problems in already at-risk retired professional football players.

The results showed that retired professional football players who are overweight suffer from more thinking and memory problems than those who maintain a healthy weight in retirement.

“Obesity is a growing epidemic in youth, collegiate, and professional football players,” write researcher Daniel Amen and colleagues of Amen Clinics in Newport Beach, Calif., in Translational Psychiatry.

“But no study to date has investigated the effects of weight on brain function in professional athletes,” write the researchers. “Our results suggest this trend will have negative, long-term consequences on brain health and may lead to complications.”

Researchers say athletes exposed to repetitive brain trauma from concussions in sports like football are already at increased risk for brain function problems. But this study suggests that being overweight or obese adds additional risks.

Excess Weight Adds Additional Risks

In the study, researchers compared blood flow in the brain in 38 healthy-weight and 38 overweight retired NFL players.

The results showed that the overweight football players had decreased blood flow in the areas of the brain associated with attention, reasoning, and organizing and planning function.

The overweight football players had decreased performance on tests measuring attention and memory.

In addition to the obvious risk factors from repetitive concussions in sports, researchers say excess body weight may increase the risk for further neurological problems.

For example, obesity increases the release of inflammatory markers associated with impaired brain function.

If these results are confirmed by further studies, the researchers say weight education and management may be essential to the future health of athletes who have been exposed to repetitive brain trauma in sports.

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Willeumier, K. Translational Psychiatry, published online Jan. 17, 2012.

News release, Nature Journals.

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