Retired National Football League players face a higher risk for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) - a kind of dementia related to Alzheimer's disease - than do similarly aged men who do not play football, according to new research presented Monday at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2011 in Paris.
In 2001, all 3,729 retired NFL players who belonged to the NFL Players' Association were mailed a general health survey. In 2008, an additional survey specifically focusing on memory issues (including an Alzheimer's screening questionnaire known as the AD8) was sent to all players over age 50 who responded to the first survey. A total of 513 follow-up surveys were returned with the AD8 completed by both the former player and his spouse. The mean age of all the players who responded was 61, and more than 35 percent of respondents had an AD8 score that suggested possible dementia. By comparison, according to the Alzheimer's Association, only 13 percent of all Americans 65 and older has Alzheimer's.
Researchers, led by Loyola University Medical Center neurology professor Christopher Randolph, then focused additional attention on select former players, comparing their neuropsychological test results with those of two other groups of individuals with no history of playing professional sports - some with no cognitive impairments and others diagnosed with MCI. They found that the former athletes were clearly impaired compared with the demographically similar non-athletes, and since the two groups were similar except for professional sports background, this finding suggests that football may have played a role in the athletes' impairment.
"It appears that there may be a very high rate of cognitive impairment in these retired football players, compared to the general population," Randolph said. "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 MCI and Alzheimer's. However, additional studies are necessary to confirm this conclusion. These results should be considered preliminary."
This news comes as retired players lobby for greater benefits and players negotiate for tighter safety regulations during the NFL lockout.
While it may seem obvious that former football players are more at risk for this type of dementia, it's worth noting for administrators of football programs at all levels that, unlike other types of brain damage associated with football-related head injuries, MCI can be caused by much lower-impact hits - including those that do not cause concussions.
According to TIME magazine, MCI-related damage occurs inside the skull, when the force of a hit causes softer brain tissue to ram against the inside of the skull, then "slosh" back. "The harder the stop, the more movement you have in the brain tissue," Randolph told reporter Alice Park. "You stretch nerve fibers, tear fibers and bruise things. So helmets are not going to protect you."
But, he added, "it's conceivable that by changing the ways players drill in practice, we could change things."