Dementia Risks Connected with NFL [J. Mark English]
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.
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.
The findings could ring loud at the youth and college levels, which often take cues from the N.F.L. on safety policies and whose players emulate the pros. Hundreds of on-field concussions are sustained at every level each week, with many going undiagnosed and untreated.
A detailed summary of the N.F.L. study, which was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, was distributed to league officials this month.
The study has not been peer-reviewed, but the findings fall into step with several recent independent studies regarding N.F.L. players and the effects of their occupational head injuries.
“This is a game-changer — the whole debate, the ball’s now in the N.F.L.’s court,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and a former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers whose research found similar links four years ago. “They always say, ‘We’re going to do our own studies.’ And now they have.”
Sean Morey, an Arizona Cardinals player who has been vocal in supporting research in this area, said: “This is about more than us — it’s about the high school kid in 2011 who might not die on the field because he ignored the risks of concussions.”
An N.F.L. spokesman, Greg Aiello, said in an e-mail message that the study did not formally diagnose dementia, that it was subject to shortcomings of telephone surveys and that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”
“Memory disorders affect many people who never played football or other sports,” Mr. Aiello said. “We are trying to understand it as it relates to our retired players.”
As scrutiny of brain injuries in football players has escalated the past three years, with prominent professionals reporting cognitive problems and academic studies supporting a link more generally, the N.F.L. and its medical committee on concussions have steadfastly denied the existence of reliable data on the issue. The league pledged to pursue its own studies, including the one at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Ira Casson, a co-chairman of the concussions committee who has been the league’s primary voice denying any evidence connecting N.F.L. football and dementia, said: “What I take from this report is there’s a need for further studies to see whether or not this finding is going to pan out, if it’s really there or not. I can see that the respondents believe they have been diagnosed. But the next step is to determine whether that is so.”
The N.F.L. is conducting its own rigorous study of 120 retired players, with results expected within a few years. All neurological examinations are being conducted by Dr. Casson....