Dangerous brain disease much more common in football players than previously thought

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A study found that 99% of a sample of former NFL players had symptoms of CTE

Safety advocates have long decried contact sports like hockey and football for causing irreparable, long-term damage to athletes at all levels. And a recent study from Boston University shows that they may be even more correct than previously thought.

After analyzing a sample of over 200 deceased athletes who played football, researchers found that 177 of them (87%) showed signs of a dangerous brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The findings showed that prevalence of CTE increased accordingly with the level of competition, with 99% of former NFL players’ brains showing signs of severe trauma.

“In a convenience sample of 202 deceased former players of American football who were part of a brain donation program, a high proportion were diagnosed neuropathologically with CTE,” the authors write. “These findings suggest that CTE may be related to prior participation in football and that a high level of play may be related to substantial disease burden.”

CTE by level of play

This research represents the largest study ever conducted on individuals with CTE and shows just how dangerous contact sports like football may be. Participants who were examined for the study included an array of former athletes, including high school, college, semi-professional, and professional players.

The researchers found that the incidence rate of CTE increased dramatically from the high school level to the professional level. Examinations resulted in CTE diagnoses in three out of 14 former high school players (21%), 48 out 53 college players (91%), nine out 14 semi-professional players (64%), seven out of eight professional Canadian Football League players (88%), and a whopping 110 out 111 former NFL players (99%).

The researchers said that the severity of CTE symptoms seemed to primarily be based on how long players were active in the sport, with high school players tending to have mild pathology and college, semi-professional, and professional players having severe pathology.

However, even mild symptoms had a marked effect on certain aspects of players' lives. Of the 27 participants with a mild pathology, all but one had behavioral symptoms, mood symptoms, or both; 23 had cognitive symptoms; and 9 showed signs of dementia.

Of the 84 participants with severe CTE pathology, 75 had behavioral symptoms, mood symptoms, or both; 80 had cognitive problems; and 71 showed signs of dementia.

Concerning for parents and athletes

The researchers say they were shocked by their own findings and how pervasive CTE was among the study’s sample. They believe that the findings indicate that CTE is much more common in football players than previously thought.

While they caution that the results need to be verified and future study is warranted, they say that there is little doubt that playing football can be devastating to athletes’ brain health, no matter what level they’re playing at.

“It’s impossible to ignore this anymore,” said researcher Dr. Ann C. McKee in a Boston Globe report. “To me this says that this [is] a public health problem, something that should concern parents and athletes. All the participants were exposed to a relatively similar type of repetitive head trauma while playing the same sport.

The full study has been published in JAMA.

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