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NFL Brain Injury Study Finds Alarming Rate of Trauma

Back of a football player holding his helmet

A recently released study on football players whose brains were donated to science has found 99 percent of the brains of former NFL players showed signs of a disease linked to repeated brain trauma. Although the study’s sample size was small, it is concerning for critics who say more should be done to protect football players—and other athletes—from the dangers of repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

TBI Study Examined Brains of 202 Former Athletes

The NFL brain injury study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and examined whether athletes who played football were at an increased risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition marked by aggression and dementia. CTE can only be diagnosed after death and has been linked to the type of hits typically seen in football.

Included in the study were the brains of 202 former football players who played in the NFL, the Canadian Football League (CFL), or at the college or high school level.  Of the 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were included, researchers found that 110 (99 percent) showed signs of CTE. Meanwhile, 91 percent of former college football players and 21 percent of former high school players also showed signs of CTE.

“The data suggest that there is very likely a relationship between exposure to football and risk of developing the disease,” said Jesse Mez, the study’s co-author.

Researchers noted, however, that the brains included in the study were donated by the subjects’ families, and those families were already more likely to agree to take part if their loved ones already displayed signs of CTE. The NFL brain injury study does not identify what proportion of football players overall are at risk of the degenerative condition.

“Nearly all of the former NFL players in this study had CTE pathology, and this pathology was frequently severe,” researchers wrote. They went on to note that a high level of play “may be related to substantial disease burden.”

Among the football-related factors that researchers wrote could affect the risk and severity of CTE, was the age football was first played, how long the athlete played, the athlete’s position played, and the number of cumulative hits. At least one separate study suggests that even one traumatic brain injury in a child can cause long-term effects that last up to seven years.

League, Players Respond to Brain Trauma Study

In a response to the NFL brain injury study, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy noted that the league would continue supporting scientific research regarding CTE.

Some players have indicated their concerns about the study’s results. Thomas Davis, linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, called the study results alarming and said players were talking about the results.

“I would be lying to you if I (said) that I didn’t get nervous seeing that stat,” Davis said. “That’s a very alarming stat.

Other players, however, said they understand there are risks associated with playing in the NFL, and they have chosen to play regardless of those risks.

Understanding CTE

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head injuries. Patients who develop CTE typically show excess atypical tau protein in their brains. This protein can cause issues with neuropathways that lead to a variety of symptoms such as confusion, aggression, impulse control issues, and suicidal behavior.

“We urgently need to find answers for not just football players, but veterans and other individuals exposed to head trauma,” said Dr. Ann McKee, one of the study’s co-authors.

NFL Paid $1 Billion to Settle Concussion Lawsuit

The NFL recently settled a lawsuit filed by players and their families who alleged the league knew about the risk of traumatic brain injuries associated with repeated concussions, but did not warn players about that risk and failed to properly protect its athletes. The amount each individual was to receive varied depending on the type of brain injury sustained and the player’s age. Those with ALS were eligible to receive up to $5 million, while those with Alzheimer’s were eligible for around $3.5 million.

A small group of players filed a challenge to the settlement, but in December 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it would not hear the players’ arguments. Additionally, a group of around 100 players opted out of the settlement, preserving their right to file a lawsuit in the future.

The NCAA and the NHL have also faced lawsuits related to concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

Should the NFL Brain Injury Study be a Wake Up Call for Parents?

While the TBI study revealed troubling results for professional athletes, the news was also not good for high school and college athletes. With 21 percent of high school football players included in the study showing signs of CTE, and 91 percent of former college players also showing such signs, there is a concern that young football players could be at risk of long-term traumatic brain injuries, even if they stop playing the sport at a relatively young age.

Some youth sports organizations have taken steps to improve safety among young athletes, but whether enough is being done to protect them from long-term brain damage remains to be seen.



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