NFL Players More Likely To Die Of Brain Disease, Study Finds

By Amir Khan on September 6, 2012 9:47 AM EDT

Football
Football players take a lot of hard hits -- not only in the NFL, but throughout their journey to get there. Now, a new study has taken a look at the consequences of all those hits, and found that NFL players are unusually prone to dying from a degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Football players take a lot of hard hits -- not only in the NFL, but throughout their journey to get there. Now, a new study has taken a look at the consequences of all those hits, and found that NFL players are unusually prone to dying from a degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Prior research suggested that football players were more susceptible to the disease, but this latest actually looked at the death certificates. They published their findings in the journal Neurology.

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Researchers looked at a positional breakdown, and found that running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and safeties were more likely to die from a brain disease than other positions.

"We would lump the different positions based on how many times they hit their heads,'' Robert Cantu, study author and  co-director of the Sports Legacy Institute, told USA Today. "For instance, linemen and line backers, and defensive backs, too. It's not just concussions that can cause this, although they're the poster child now. It's the repeated banging of the head day in and day out."

The previous study was conducted in 1994, and Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, said it's likely injuries have worsened since then.

"Football has changed a great deal (since the late 1980s)," he told USA Today. "The players are bigger and the game is faster now compared to then. It wouldn't surprise me if the problem isn't worse in the modern era. Also it wasn't common in that earlier era for players to start as a kid . The modern generation is starting younger so they've had longer exposure to brain trauma."

However, the NFL said that they have taken steps to protect their players.

"Well before this study was released, the NFL took significant steps to address head injuries in football, provide medical and financial assistance to our retired players, and raise awareness of the most effective ways to prevent, manage and treat concussions," the league said in a statement. "The NFL has strengthened its playing rules to remove unnecessary hits to the head and better protect players in speed and defenseless positions."

Everett J. Lehman, study author, applauded the NFL for the steps they have taken.

"The medical management is much better now," he told Reuters. They're not just 'shaking it off' and getting back on the field anymore."

In April, a former Atlanta Falcon safety and plaintiff in a concussion lawsuit, shot and killed himself. It was found that he suffered from a degenerative brain disease. Junior Seau also committed suicide in May, which prompted his family to donate his brain tissue.

"What the study doesn't capture is how (many) lives are made worse from having these diseases'' Nowinski says. "Now that we know what we're dealing with we need to find ways to prevent it.''

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