Professional football players may be at a higher risk of death from diseases that damage brain cells, such as Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to new research.
The study, published online in Neurology, examined data on 3,439 National Football League players with an average age of 57 who played at least five seasons of the game between 1959 and 1988.
Researchers reviewed death certificates for causes of death from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS. At the time of the analysis, only 10 percent of the participants had passed away, the researchers noted.
What they found is that professional football players were three times more likely to die as a result of diseases that damage brain cells compared to the general population.
A player’s risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was almost four times higher than the general population, the researchers said.
Of the 334 who died, seven had Alzheimer’s disease and another seven had ALS. The risk of dying from Parkinson’s disease was not significantly different than that of the general population, the researchers noted.
To determine if these risks differed by position played, researchers divided the players into two groups: Those who played non-line (“speed”) positions, such as quarterbacks, running backs, halfbacks, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties and linebackers; and those who played line (“non-speed”) positions, such as defensive and offensive linemen.
According to the researchers, speed position players were more than three times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative cause than non-speed position players. About 62 percent of the players were in speed positions.
“These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” said study author Everett J. Lehman, M.S., with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati.
“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.”
Lehman said the study, which was supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was limited by the small number of deaths in the analysis.
Source: American Academy of Neurology