NFL players face higher risk of dying from Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases

Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, shown getting tackled, filed a lawsuit against the NFL for his numerous   head injuries.  (AP Photo/Fred Jewell, File)
Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, shown getting tackled, filed a lawsuit against the NFL for his numerous head injuries. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell, File)

On the same day that the National Football League announced that it was pledging $30 million for research into brain injuries and their link to Alzheimer’s disease and other brain conditions, a new study finds that NFL players have three times the risk of dying from a brain disease compared with the general population.

The research, published in the journal Neurology, could provide fuel for lawsuits launched against the NFL by more than 3,000 former professional football players. The players have charged the football league with concealing research that has associated repeat concussions with permanent brain injuries known to trigger dementia, nervous system disorders, and severe depression that has led to suicides. They also contend that the league did little to prevent such injuries or support proper management and treatment by, for example, restricting playing time.

NFL lawyers moved last week to try to shut down the lawsuits by calling them a ‘’labor dispute’’ that should be handled by the players’ collective bargaining agreement; the judge hasn’t yet issued a ruling.

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In the new study, federal government researchers analyzed medical records from more than 3,400 former NFL players and compared them with medical records of their peers in the general population. While the football players—whose average age was 57—had 50-percent fewer deaths from cancer and heart disease compared with regular men their own age, they were three times as likely to have died from a brain disease such as Alzheimer’s or amyotrophic lateral schlerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Former players who had been in speed positions—such as quarterbacks, running backs, halfbacks, fullbacks, and wide receivers—had a higher risk of dying from a brain disease than those in non-speed positions such as defensive and offensive linemen. That’s most likely because the speed positions experience more concussions from being tackled.

“These results are consistent with recent studies that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players,” study author Everett Lehman of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati said in a statement. “Although our study looked at causes of death from Alzheimer’s disease and ALS as shown on death certificates, research now suggests that chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that’s triggered by repeat brain injuries and has been linked in studies conducted by Boston University researchers to numerous death in college and professional athletes.

Still, the authors of the new research noted, “the results of our study do not establish a cause-effect relationship between football-related concussion and death.” And the extent of increased risk may be imprecise because of the small number of deaths: 10 deaths from brain diseases occurred among the NFL players, compared with three deaths in the non-players.