The press has been awash with information on the dangers of playing football in recent years, and the dangers of repeated concussions has become well known. Now new research conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University identified severe brain disease in 87 of the 91 brains they examined from deceased NFL players.
First brought to light by PBS, Medical News Today summarized the research findings in September 2015. The researchers identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of these former football players. This condition occurs after repeated blows to the head over a period of time. The disorder causes progressive damage to the brain’s nerve cells that can impair cognitive functioning and lead to depression and dementia.
While the media coverage on brain damage in football players has focused on concussions, previous research suggested that repetitive minor head trauma poses a bigger risk than previously believed, even rivaling the more violent collisions. So far, the researchers identified CTE in the brains of 79% of all of the football players examined to date.
One factor that complicates research is the fact that CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Also, since the former football players who donated their brains to science tended to be concerned about symptoms of possible brain damage, there is concern that there could be a selection bias in this latest study. Nonetheless, it is clear that CTE is much more widespread than was previously known and is not just a very rare disease that is being sensationalized.
A number of football players have brought suit against the NFL for health conditions they suffered in later life, and the league approved a $1 billion settlement with around 5,000 former players in April.
Future research will involve examining the brains of football players who do not display any symptoms of brain injury to truly discover how widespread CTE is in these athletes.