Professional Football Players Have Increased Risk of Cognitive Impairment Later in Life

by Dr Sam Girgis on July 18, 2011

Previous research has suggested that there is an association between recurrent concussion and cognitive impairment in later life among retired professional football players.  It is hypothesized that cognitive impairment may result from the repetitive head trauma that is characterized by the sport of American football.  The current study was reported by Dr. Christopher Randolph at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris, France on July 18, 2011.  The researchers evaluated the likelihood of developing cognitive functional decline among retired professional football players compared to the general population who had not played professional sports.  Health surveys were sent to all retired National Football League (NFL) players who were registered with the NFL Players Association in 2001.  Of the 3,729 retired players that received a survey, 68% responded to the survey.  In 2008, a second survey was sent to all respondents who were 50 years of age or older and focused on cognitive function with a specific focus on memory problems.  The second survey included an Alzheimer’s dementia screening questionnaire.  There were a total of 513 secondary surveys returned with the Alzheimer’s dementia screening questionnaire filled out.  Based upon these results, it was calculated that 35% of the respondents had evidence of possible dementia.  This value is significantly greater than the estimated rate of dementia among Americans older than 65 years of age, currently at about 13%.  Next, the researchers identified survey participants that could possibly have mild cognitive impairment, and recruited these individuals to participate in further neuropsychological testing.  When compared to demographically similar adults who had not played professional sports, the researchers found that the professional football player had evidence of cognitive impairment.  The researchers commented that “These findings support the hypothesis that repetitive head trauma from many years of playing American football may result in diminished brain reserve, and lead to the earlier expression of age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as [mild cognitive impairment] and Alzheimer’s. However, additional studies are necessary to confirm this conclusion. These results should be considered preliminary”.  It is important to note that these results cannot and should not be generalized to the general population of contact sport playing athletes.  Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, commented, “The fact that people who do that sort of thing have an almost altered physiology, that they’re natural risk takers, and that they have a very obscure and undiscoverable pharmacological history, would all confuse that data, so we shouldn’t generalize that to anybody; we should look at that as a workplace issue rather than a warning for the public”.

See the full interview with Dr. William Thies on the following YouTube video:

CLICK HERE for the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference reference – Christopher Randolph et al. “Characterization of Mild Cognitive Impairment in Retired NFL Players” presented at AAIC 2011, Paris, France

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