NFL Study Indicates Higher Rate of Dementia

Submitted by Clarence Beeks on September 29th, 2009 at 8:30 PM

Study conducted by U of M Institute for Social research. A small snippet:

"A study commissioned by the National Football League reports that Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49."

Thought this was very interesting. Discuss.



September 29th, 2009 at 8:40 PM ^

The sad thing is that there are football helmets out there with extra padding (on the outside) which are believed to greatly reduce incidence of head trauma, but IIRC, only one player in the NFL has ever worn one. Fashion trumps functionality.


September 29th, 2009 at 9:06 PM ^

I don't doubt that there are better helmets, but I think the helmet still has an ultimate limitation: the fact that the helmet can't stop the brain from bouncing around inside the skull.

So while the helmet can do a great job of absorbing impact to the skull, the speed of the game still causes a lot of closed/internal brain damage.

Here's a great article that I'd recommend to everyone:

For those short on time, this quote really tells it all:

Helmets are not the answer. The brain has a certain amount of play inside the skull. It’s buoyed up in the cerebral spinal fluid. It sits in this fluid, floats. When the head suddenly stops, the brain continues, reverberates back. So when I hit, boom, my skull stops, but my brain continues forward for about a centimeter. Boom, boom, it reverberates back. So you could have padding that’s a foot thick. It’s not going to change the acceleration/deceleration phenomenon. And a lot of these injuries are rotational. The fibers get torn with rotation. You’ve got a face mask that’s like a fulcrum sitting out here: You get hit, your head swings around. That’s when a lot of these fibers are sheared—by rotation. A helmet can’t ever prevent that.

[EDIT: There are some people who disagree with the research in GQ, and they may very well present valid points. I'm not suggesting GQ is or isn't an objective news source]


September 29th, 2009 at 9:21 PM ^

I saw this just a few minutes ago; the NFL is doing its own more detailed study (very slowly...). The second paragraph in the article reminded me of another industry:

>>The N.F.L. has long denied the existence of reliable data about cognitive decline among its players. These numbers would become the league’s first public affirmation of any connection, though the league pointed to limitations of this study.


September 30th, 2009 at 7:36 AM ^

I first thought of tobacco, then cellphones.

There's new research on the latter that I think of when I see teenagers (mostly female) with cellphones constantly glued to their ears.

Good summary here:

What's ironic is you have the same thing as with the NFL. More independent studies show risk, whereas the industry (NFL or wireless providers) downplay the risk or say "more research is required."

I am by no means an alarmist. But when you have health concerns that don't manifest for 30+ years, you have to be a bit careful, and informed.


September 29th, 2009 at 9:52 PM ^

It's not surprising that there is a higher incidence of dementia and Alzheimer's among NFL players. However, the disease seems to have multiple "indicators" for onset. One of which is, obviously, head trauma. However, the reason head trauma is an indicator is up for debate. The deeper prevailing thought among researchers seems to be related to repeated inflammation. This can be caused by many things, including infections and, of course, head trauma. There is another relation that is more important here, I think. That is the indications that rates of Alzheimer's, and more generally, dementia, are inversely proportional to education level. Another indicator is mental activity in the "retirement red zone" (ages 50-65) It would be interesting to see what the actual assessed education level of NFL players is, not just the "attained". Let's face it, not all NFL players were college material in the classroom. Also, especially recently, many NFL players do little to no mentally taxing work post football retirement. This factors combined are a tough combination of "risk factors" that can add up fast.

Clarence Beeks

September 29th, 2009 at 9:58 PM ^

I don't agree about the "inversely proportional to education level" assessment. Both my wife and I are in elder care (with my wife doing a substantial amount of work with Alzheimer's patients) and in our experience most of our Alzheimer's patients/clients are pretty highly educated, at least comparatively with their peer group.

Clarence Beeks

September 29th, 2009 at 10:19 PM ^

Sorry, I was trying to edit my first comment to fill in some blanks before you responded, but you beat me to it. I wasn't meaning to be a jerk, so I'm sorry if it came across that way. I understand that there is research out there that shows some sort of correlation, but it doesn't seem to jive with what we see in our patients/clients. My wife has MUCH more experience with Alzheimer's patients, so I'll just talk about her experience. Her patients are predominantly not private pay with some that are private pay. Her experience is that most of her Alzheimer's patients are more highly educated than her non-Alzheimer's patients. I realize this is a small subset and that in the larger scheme of things it might not be representative, but I was surprised that you presented the inverse relationship as something that is firmly established since I hadn't heard it presented that way before. I'm not sure if that's what you meant, but that's how I read it. Regardless, I'm glad that this subject is getting more attention, as it's something that I'm extremely interested in, and it's nice to talk about it here. One thing that strikes me as potentially problematic with these studies is their definition of "educated". I'm curious as to whether they have adjusted education level for the studied group since what is considered "educated" for that age group is not consistent with what we considered "educated" today.


September 29th, 2009 at 10:43 PM ^

No problem, duder. I was getting worried! You didn't come off as a jerk at all; I hope I didn't come off as a huge authority on the subject, either. I agree, however, that there are so many problems with the studies of education/educational background and, well, pretty much anything. It is fairly nebulus - does an M.D. degree make you more educated than a Ph.D. in philosophy (however redundant...but that's another story...)? Does a political science degree from U of M have the same educational merit as one from Central Tennessee State? Can you flatly say that I.Q. "x" is better than "y", or just greater than? It's a tough problem.
I'm not sure where they got their data to present to us, if it was based on studies from our hospital system or empirical data from peer-reviewed papers or what.


September 29th, 2009 at 10:01 PM ^

Any Given Sunday is on AMC right now....and Jim Brown just asked LT "do you wanna be like one of those punch drunk fighters that cant remember anything that happened in their life?"

LT signed the waiver though and will play vs. Dallas.

Thats what its like.


September 29th, 2009 at 10:54 PM ^

Check out ex-Harvard football player-turned-WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski's website. He had to retire from the WWE with post-concussion syndrome, and has formed a non-profit organization to study the effects of concussions on athletes. I already knew a lot of this stuff because I've had a few concussions myself, but his work is still an eye-opener.


September 29th, 2009 at 11:41 PM ^

This is the elephant in the room for professional football players. The post-playing injuries are absolutely horrific. In college you just don't play long enough to sustain the sort of damage that a pro career will do. Also the players are more reliably athletic making your exposure more dangerous.

Still, as others have noted, I'd like to see a full-on controlled study of the NFL data accounting for other risk factors to determine how much of it had to do with contact football and how much was other things (including non-contact training, diet, whatever they do in the offseason...)