Retired NFL Players More Likely To Suffer ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease

NFL players may face a higher risk of developing ALS and Alzheimer’s disease, according to government researchers this week.

The researchers found that retired professional football players appear to experience greater-than-normal risks of dying from ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease—or Alzheimer’s disease, following a study of more than 3,400 retired National Football League (NFL) players, said Reuters. Death rates from both diseases wee an astounding four times higher than those seen in the general population of the United States.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) researchers said they could not be certain of the reasons for the rise in the brain diseases in the athletes; however, concussions could be to blame. “This study cannot establish cause-and-effect,” said lead researcher Everett J. Lehman, according to Reuters. “We did not have data on concussions,” he added, but he did note that other research has revealed links between repeat concussion and higher risks for neurologic disorders.

The researchers looked at 3,439 players who spent at least five seasons in the NFL between 1959 and 1988. By year-end of 2007, 10 percent had died, which was about half of what would be seen in the general male population, said Reuters. “It’s only deaths from neurodegenerative causes where we see a higher risk,” said Lehman. Seven players had Alzheimer’s disease listed on their death certificate and seven had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) listed.

Research has linked repeat concussions in athletes to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), said Reuters. CTE is a progressive decline in brain cell function that leads to memory problems and problems with movement and balance. Today, CTE can only be confirmed with a brain autopsy.

The current research was reported in the journal, Neurology, and expands on prior research conducted by Dr. Ann C. McKee, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and an expert in the area of CTE. Dr. McKee said the new research uncovered increased risks for being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or ALS, said Reuters. “This is an important paper representing a significant advance that ties clinical findings to our neuropathological data,” McKee said in an email to Reuters.

This may, May, retired NFL legend, Junior Seau killed himself, which brought attention to the possible effects of repeated head blows and concussions among pro players, said Reuters. Just prior, Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears player, killed himself; his suicide note requested a postmortem brain exam, which revealed signs of CTE. This year, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who was diagnosed with dementia, shot himself. Now, more than 2,000 former NFL players have joined a lawsuit alleging that the NFL has long hidden brain injury risks from players, said Reuters. This morning, the NFL announced a $30 million donation to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research into a variety of conditions that include CTE, concussions, and Alzheimer’s disease.

We recently wrote that another scientific paper contended that some soldiers and athletes diagnosed with ALS might actually have been victims of concussions and other brain trauma. That research was published on the web site of the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology.

According to the ALS Association, Lou Gehrig’s disease—named for the Yankee slugger believed to have succumbed to ALS in 1941—is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. ALS is rare, affecting about 100,000 people. NFL players have a higher rate of the disease than the general population—statistically, only about two should have the disease; however, since 1970, 14 NFL players have been diagnosed with ALS.

Players in other sports also have a higher rate of ALS than the population at large. In Canada, eight Canadian Football League players have been diagnosed with the fatal ailment and, in Italy, more than 40 professional soccer players are victims.

No cause for Alzheimer’s disease has been found. The disease is a progressive and fatal disorder that destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior severe enough to affect one’s personal and professional lives. About five million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, the seventh leading cause of death in the US.

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