NFL Study: Players Face Huge Risk of Dementia

06-02-2009
Retired National Football League players experience a shockingly high rate of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to an NFL-authorized study

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NFL Study: Players Face Huge Risk of Dementia

Retired National Football League players experience a shockingly high rate of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to an NFL-authorized study. Former players ages 30 through 49 had memory-related diseases 19 times higher than the rate in the national population, according to the study, which also found that 6.1 percent of former NFL players 50 and over had been diagnosed with a form of dementia, a rate five times higher than the national average of 1.2 percent.

Experts had long suspected that cognitive decline was more prevalent among former football players, but the NFL always denied the existence of dependable data. The study’s results could reverberate down to the high school and college levels, where hundreds of concussions occur every week. Many young players are left undiagnosed and untreated.

“This is a game-changer — the whole debate, the ball’s now in the NFL’s court,” Dr. Julian Bailes told The New York Times. Bailes, a former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers who now chairs the neurosurgery department at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, conducted research four years ago and had similar results. “They always say, ‘We’re going to do our own studies,’ and now they have,” Bailes said.

The study was based on telephone interviews with 1,063 players selected at random who had played at least three seasons. Even though the NFL commissioned the study at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, league spokesman Greg Aiello said the study didn’t formally diagnose dementia and that thousands of former NFL players do not suffer from memory problems. He also pointed out that memory problems affect people who have never played sports.

But the presence of dementia among former NFL players hasn’t been a secret. When families of players began facing financial ruin because of overwhelming medical bills related to dementia, their families approached the NFL asking for financial assistance. In 2007, Sylvia Mackey, wife of Hall of Famer John Mackey, wrote to the then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue pleading for financial assistance. As a result, the 88 Plan (named after Mackey’s jersey number) was formed to help pay for the care of former players who have dementia.

The late Gene Upshaw, who was the executive director of the NFL’s player’s union, said he was shocked when he saw an initial list of 35 players who were approved for aid. “I knew one or two were having problems, but I never knew the extent,” he told the AP in May of 2007. In four months, 103 potential candidates for aid had been identified. One study by Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina found that retired NFL players who had three or more concussions during their career upped their chances 500 percent of suffering from mild cognitive impairment compared with those with no concussions.

And Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh doctor who performed autopsies on four former NFL players under the age of 50 made a startling discovery: All four brains showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition usually found either in boxers with dementia or in people in their 80s and 90s.

The study complements other research, Dr. Daniel Perl, director of neuropathology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told The New York Times. “There appears to be a problem with cognition in a group of NFL football players at a relatively young age.”