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NFL Study Reveals Link Between Concussions and Alzheimers


The NFL recently settled a suit filed by players seeking to receive compensation for medical issues that they say resulted from concussions.  More specifically, current and retired players are experiencing dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive brain diseases at alarming rates.  Prior to this lawsuit, there was information out there regarding the relationship between head injuries and dementia, but the suit has prompted a singular, thorough, and comprehensive study that has yielded surprising results.

There were few that would deny the correlation between years of taking hard hits as an NFL player and dementia.  What is truly frightening is that players between the ages of 30-49 are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at a rate of 19 times greater than the rest of the population.  In addition, not only are players getting Alzheimer’s they are being diagnosed early onset forms of the disease.  
Ultimately, conservative predictions based on the study data show that 30% of NFL Players will develop Alzheimer’s or dementia as they age.  By comparison, only about 1.6% of the American population has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That still accounts for 5.1 million people, but in a country of 313 million, it is a relatively small portion of the population.  As it stands now 6.1% of players 50 and over have already been diagnosed with a dementia related disease.
The study also shows that the risks associated with head injuries and concussions go beyond Alzheimer’s and dementia and extend into mood disorders, like depression, and cognitive impairment.  The suicides of Dave Duerson, Ray Esterling, and Junior Seau have prompted more interest in the link between traumatic brain injuries and depression.  Even one concussion during the course of a long career can be enough to significantly change the composition and ratio of white matter in your brain and affect blood flow to certain areas.  
Brain scans performed on deceased players have revealed that many of them suffer from a specific type of brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  This disease is known to be a direct result of repetitive brain trauma and does not immediately present symptoms.  It takes years or even decades for suffers to experience symptoms that include:  memory loss, confusion, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidal thoughts and tendencies and dementia.  
Unfortunately, tests for CTE can only be done posthumously, which makes diagnosing this particular type of brain damage impossible.  In an effort to help scientists and future athletes, some players are planning to donate their brains to science after their deaths.
Of course, these types of injuries and higher rates of brain diseases aren’t limited to NFL players.  Any group that suffers from traumatic brain injuries will not only experience more cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia, they will also experience them at younger ages.  Similar studies have been conducted on military veterans and other athletes and only serve to further support these conclusions.
The good news is that the settlement means that NFL players will be receiving more support when it comes to covering the medical costs of dealing with degenerative brain diseases.  And while this study does not reach beyond identifying the problem and some of its causes, it is a meaningful step towards better understanding brain function.  Down the road, it may even have some influence on how the game of football is played so that these types of injuries don’t occur as often.

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