According to a new study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, Ohio, professional football players are much more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and other conditions caused by brain cell damage. The research for this study included data from 3,439 ex-professional football players. The study included players who had played at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988 for the National Football League (NFL). Researchers searched death certificates looking for those who expired due to ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.1
The results of the study revealed professional football players had triple the risk of death caused by diseases that destroy or damage brain cells compared to other people. It was also discovered that professional football players had a four times greater risk of dying from ALS or Alzheimer’s disease, and had about the same risk of death from Parkinson’s disease as the rest of the general population.2
Ever J. Lehman, MS, led a team of researchers to determine whether or not positions of ex-football players had an impact on their risk of death from brain damaging diseases. They divided the players into a speed group and a non-speed group. The speed group included non-line positions such as fullbacks, running backs, quarterbacks, halfbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties, and linebackers. The non-speed group included line positions such as defensive and offensive lineman. The team of researchers found speed-position players were over three times as likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease as non-speed position players. Neurodegenerative diseases include diseases with a progressive loss of function or structure of neurons, including their death. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS are all examples of neurodegenerative diseases.3
According to lead researcher Lehman:
These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players. Although our study looked at causes of death from Alzheimer’s disease and ALS as shown on death certificates, research now suggests that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths. A brain autopsy is necessary to diagnose CTE and distinguish it from Alzheimer’s or ALS. While CTE is a separate diagnosis, the symptoms are often similar to those found in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, and can occur as the result of multiple concussions.4
The results of this study are not overly shocking considering both professional and amateur football players have a higher risk of sustaining head and/or brain injuries. Head and brain injuries have been considered by experts as major risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases and research to back this up continues to amass.
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