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Alzheimer's Disease, Memory Problems Common Among NFL Players


A study ordered by the National Football League (NFL) has uncovered critical data about the incidence of memory problems and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease among NFL players that the league must now face head-on. The findings show that memory-related diseases appear to be significantly more common among NFL players, including a 19-fold higher rate among men ages 30 through 49.

This is not the first time research has shown a relationship between playing football and the development of memory problems and dementia, although it is the first time the NFL has asked for a study to be done. A 2005 study conducted at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example, analyzed data from more than 2,550 retired professional football players. Sixty-one percent of them had experienced at least one concussion during their career, and 24 percent had had three or more. The researchers found an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease among these men than the general male population, and concluded that dementia-related syndromes may be initiated by concussions in professional football players.

The current study was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research at the request of the NFL. A total of 1,063 retired NFL players completed the survey given by the Michigan researchers. Among the questions asked of the players was whether they had ever been diagnosed with memory problems, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. A total of 6.1 percent of players age 50 and older had been diagnosed with a dementia-related condition, which is five times greater than the national average of 1.2 percent. Younger players (30 to 49 years) had a rate of 1.9 percent, which is 19 times that of the national average of 0.1 percent.

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The results of this study send out critical signals to football at high school and college levels, where coaches and administrators typically follow the cues from the NFL concerning safety issues. Unfortunately, concussions are common among school-age players, with hundreds occurring each week. According to a study conducted by Ohio State University and published in August 2009, 11.6 percent of the injuries suffered by high school students who play sports are concussions. A total of 13,755 injuries were reported during the 2005 through 2008 academic years, with football players experiencing the highest rate of recurrent injuries.

In another study conducted at McGill University in Canada, the researchers analyzed data from 380 university football and 240 university soccer players for a one year period. A total of 70.4 percent of the football players had experienced symptoms of a concussion during the previous year. Only 23.4 percent of the concussed football players realized they had had a concussion. More than one concussion was experienced by 84.6 percent of the football players. The study did not look into any memory problems related to the concussions.

Dr. Julian Bailes, who was part of the University of North Carolina study in 2005, noted in the New York Times article on September 29, that the results of this study are “a game-changer—the whole debate, the whole debate, the ball’s now in the NFL’s court.” The NFL is now conducting its own study of 120 retired players, but the results are not expected for several years. All the neurological examinations will be done by Dr. Ira Casson, who is a co-chairman of the concussions committee. Dr. Casson has long denied there is any evidence that connects NFL football and the development of memory problems and dementia.

Guskiewicz KM et al. Neurosurgery 2005 Oct; 57(4): 719-26
New York Times, September 29, 2009
Swenson DM et al. American Journal of Sports Medicine 2009 Aug; 37(8): 1586-93