Retired NFL Players Often Have Brain Damage, Study Finds

By Amir Khan on July 2, 2012 8:52 AM EDT

Football
Retired NFL players often have brain damage and don't know it, according to new research presented Friday at the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) annual meeting in St. Louis. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Retired NFL players often have brain damage and don't know it, according to new research presented Friday at the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) annual meeting in St. Louis. The findings add to a mounting pile of evidence that repeated head injuries from sports can lead to long-lasting neurological problems, researchers said.

Researchers analyzed 34 ex-football players to measure their memory, reasoning and problem-solving ability and found that while 20 appeared to be normal, the rest had various neurological problems, such as dementia and other memory or thinking problems.

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"We picked up that many guys were depressed but didn't know it," Dr. John Hart, study author and medical science director at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas, said in a statement. The cognitive impairments were more than what's expected for their ages. A lot had damage to their brain's white matter, so for us it's a real clue or marker to look for."

The players who were diagnosed with depression didn't show any of the typical symptoms, which surprised the researchers. They did not show any signs of mood issues, such as sadness, that most people associate with the condition.

"There was a lack of energy, initiative or sex drive and disrupted sleep, with weight gain or loss," Hart said. "They would ruminate or get anxious about stuff, but they weren't crying. They were shocked or surprised [at the finding], because they didn't think they had symptoms at all."

The results highlight the need to test athletes for depression after they suffer from concussions, researchers said. In addition, they said it's important to let the brain rest and heal after a concussion instead of letting them get back on the field.

Paul J. Krawietz, director of the athletic training education program in the department of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the athletes need to take concussions more seriously, and said even going back to class to quickly could be detrimental for them.

The testing and note-taking can exacerbate symptoms or make them worse if a student comes back too soon," Krawietz said in a statement. "People know symptoms can be made worse by physical exertion, but often they don't think about the cognitive component, that thinking can make things worse."

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