Retired pro football players seem to have higher-than-average risks of dying from Alzheimer’s.

Retired pro football players seem to have higher-than-average risks of dying
from Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's disease, states Reuters.

In a study of more than 3,400 retired
National Football League (NFL) players, the researchers found that death rates
from the two brain diseases were four times higher than those in the general
U.S. population. The researchers, from the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH), cannot be sure of the reasons.

But they suspect they could be looking at the
long-term consequences of repeat concussions during players' careers.
"This study cannot establish cause-and-effect," said lead researcher
Everett J. Lehman.

"We did not have data on
concussions." But, Lehman said, other studies have found links between
repeat concussion and an increased risk of neurologic disorders, including
memory impairment.

Lab research has specifically linked
concussions in athletes to a distinct disorder known as chronic traumatic
encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive decline in brain cell function that
eventually causes problems with memory, movement and balance.

Dr. Ann C. McKee, co-director of Boston
University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has analyzed
autopsied brain tissue from athletes, including football players, to find the
damage that marks CTE.

The new study expands those lab findings, by
uncovering higher risks of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's or ALS, according
to McKee. (Right now, CTE can be pinpointed only after a brain autopsy.)
"This is an important paper representing a significant advance that ties
clinical findings to our neuropathological data," McKee said in an email.

LOU GEHRIG'S, ALZHEIMER'S

This latest study, Lehman said, helps
"quantify" the risk of degenerative brain disease among former NFL
players.

The researchers had data on 3,439 players who
spent at least five seasons in the NFL between 1959 and 1988.

By the end of 2007, 10 percent of those men
had died — only about half the rate that would be expected among U.S. men
their age.

"So overall, this cohort is very
healthy," Lehman said. "It's only deaths from neurodegenerative
causes where we see a higher risk."

Seven players had Alzheimer's listed on their
death certificate, and the same number had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
— commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Those are small numbers, Lehman said, but the
rate of each disease was about four times higher than would be expected in the
general population.

ALS is an invariably fatal neurologic disease
in which the nerve cells that control movement progressively degenerate,
leading to paralysis and death from respiratory failure.

It's diagnosed in about 5,000 Americans each
year. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting more
than 5 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

In this study, NFL players in
"speed" positions – like wide receiver, running back and quarterback
– accounted for most of the deaths from Alzheimer's or ALS.

 

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