New study links sports concussions to depression and dementia

The growing pile of research about head injuries in pro sports got a huge dump of new evidence this morning, when researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy published a new study in which they carefully examined the brain tissue of 85 deceased individuals with a history of repetitive head trauma—veterans, boxers and football and hockey players. They found that 68 of the 85 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disorder linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. The study more than doubled the number of documented cases of CTE and supports previous evidence that linked the NFL to CTE. PBS reports:

Previously, CTE had been found in 18 of the 19 former NFL players whose brains were examined. The 15 new [NFL] cases in the BU study mean that of the 34 brains of former NFL players that have been examined, 33 had the disease. Linemen made up 40 percent of those cases, supporting research that suggests repetitive head trauma occurring on every play — not concussions associated with violent collisions — may be the biggest risk. BU also reported CTE in four former NHL players.

The study seems extra-pertinent today as it comes only two days after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, then drove to the team’s practice facility where he shot and killed himself in front of his coach and general manager. Belcher, 25, had been a linebacker for the Chiefs for four years. According to friends, after a recent game against the Bengals Belcher “was dazed and was suffering from short-term memory loss. He could not remember the events that had taken place prior to that game or what he had said to get Kasi [Kasandra Perkins] to return home.”

Though drawing a link between an individual tragedy—which also involved an addiction to prescription pain killers—and a large study is precarious, researchers have been documenting dementia and depression in ex-football players for years. In just the past two years six NFL players have committed suicide, and in September former Bears star Jim McMahon, 53, spoke to CNN about suffering from the early stages of dementia, which he attributes to his 14 year career as a quarterback. He and a group of other players are suing the NFL, which they say teaches players to lead with their heads.

Critics acknowledge the existence of CTE, but some accuse BU of creating hysteria about football injuries. Others are suggesting factors besides head trauma may be behind the disease.

(Image via Sport In Law)