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Even More Evidence That Football Causes Brain Injury

A new study found football players were nearly four times more likely to have died from Alzheimer's disease or Lou Gehrig's disease

Being a professional athlete has its perks. The fame, the adrenalin, the money (sometimes), the girls. But it has its downsides too. A recent study suggests that football players are more likely to develop brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The study included 3,500 players in the National Football League who played in at least five seasons between the years 1959 and 1988. About ten percent of those players, whose average age was 57, had died. When researchers looked at the causes of death of those players—334 in all—they found that the players were nearly four times more likely to have died from Alzheimer’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Of course, position on the field matters. Players who run into things at high speeds, like quarterbacks, running backs, halfbacks, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties and linebackers were all more likely to suffer. In fact, compared to offensive and defensive lineman, they were over three times more likely to die from one of these neurodegenerative diseases.

The study comes on the same day that the NFL vowed to spend $30 million on medical research to help future players.

The link between football and brain injuries isn’t a new one. The journalist Alan Schwarz has been covering the emerging research showing that repeated blows to the head have long term effects on football players. In 2007, Schwarz published a shocking and controversial story on the death of Andre Waters, a player who killed himself. Shwarz’s reporting lead him to the uncomfortable conclusion that it was football that might have been responsible:

The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stageAlzheimer’s victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.

Since then, the link has become clearer and clearer. Scientific American reports:

A 2007 study by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes (CSRA) backs his findings. According to the research, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, National Football League (NFL) players surveyed who had sustained three or more concussions were three times as likely to develop clinical depression as players who had not suffered concussions. An earlier study in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that this group was also five times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment—a condition linked to neurodegenerative diseases such asAlzheimer’s.

This most recent study is simply confirming what past work has suggested. And ESPN The Magazine says that the science is just catching up to what people who know football players already know:

There are detailed studies being done as we speak about the danger of football, but if you want to understand the lives behind the data, sit in the McKinley Grand during induction weekend. Watch the guys walk across the lobby. Bobby Mitchell inches with a cane. Campbell needs to be pushed. They wobble, waddle and lean. Some sort of swing themselves across the room, like a gate opening and closing. A small group seems untouched by their careers — Wehrli looks like he could still play — but mostly, I watch them struggle between the front door and the elevator. “They’re all like that,” a security guard says. “It’s sad.”

Despite all this, football isn’t going anywhere. Fans are loyal, and players and getting bigger and stronger. Die hard football fan J.R. Moehringer wrote in ESPN The Magazine (the Michael Oriard he mentions here was a lineman with the Chiefs and is now a sports historian):

Football will survive because its absence would create a cultural vacuum. Maybe not a vacuum, because nature abhors a vacuum and nature wouldn’t abhor the loss of football. Nature would be fine. The death of football would create a cultural DustBuster. “Institutions are embedded in it,” Oriard says. “It’s embedded in institutions. If it goes away, the question is, What replaces it? How will we satisfy whatever needs it served?” Offhand, Oriard can’t think of a way.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:
Football Tech to Protect Players

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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