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Head Games: Brain Injuries Intercept Football

Former professional football players are three times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS than other Americans. But is it fair to blame concussions?

The 2012 football season got underway earlier this month—cue the nachos, Coors Light mini-kegs, and incessant Tim Tebow memes—and just hours before the first kickoff, the NFL made big news in the quietest way possible. In a press release posted to the Web, commissioner Roger Goodell announced a $30 million donation—the largest in league history—to a foundation supporting the National Institutes of Health, seed money for accelerated research into traumatic brain injuries and neurodegenerative diseases. “This research will extend beyond the NFL playing field and benefit athletes at all levels and others, including members of our military,” said Goodell.

Football is America’s most-watched sport, a multi-billion dollar a year industry for players, owners, and advertisers alike. For obvious reasons the league worries that fans will hear “NFL” and think “brain trauma.” But it’s wishful thinking to hope fans won't, as research continues to show the strong links between pro ball and lasting brain damage—perhaps the result of the rough, raucous action fans love so much. With each season, the evidence only grows more damning.

Indeed, one other thing happened on Opening Day, but it received even less attention than Goodell’s $30 million gift: the journal Neurology published a CDC study showing that former NFL players—those who had played at least five seasons between 1959 and 1988—were three times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), with even higher risk levels among the latter two. And, as might be expected, when the researchers parsed the subjects between “speed positions” (i.e. running backs, wide receivers) and “non-speed” positions (i.e. linemen), it was speed players—those exposed to the hardest and highest velocity hits—who fared worst.

Everett Lehman, one of the study’s authors, says that he and his colleagues weren’t able to draw a causal connection between brain injuries and neurodegenerative diseases, because they didn’t have data on individual players’ histories of concussions. But other researchers, including those at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, have argued that case persuasively. A 2005 study of more than 7,000 former Italian soccer players concluded that they were six times more likely to suffer from ALS than a baseline population. And interviews with 700 Thai boxers suggested a link between the number of bouts they fought and their risk of developing Parkinson’s.

Just 10 percent of the former NFL players Lehman studied have passed away, so he and his colleagues will have to wait for the cohort to age before the data improve. Until then, he has little hopeful news to offer. “That’s not a fulfilling thing for people to hear,” he says. “It’s not a real comforting thing, what we do with mortality studies.”