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Ex-NFL players report higher rates of memory-related disease

NFL Statement

"The survey found that playing in the NFL was a very positive experience for most retired players and that overall they are in very good physical and financial condition. Their history of physical fitness shows up in lower rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. On most other health problems they are similar to or healthier than the general population, the survey noted. We are carefully reviewing the information and sharing it with others to assist our work on behalf of retired players.

"Regarding the two graphs (page 32) on memory problems in this 37-page survey, its acknowledges significant limitations of the survey in this area. The survey did not diagnose dementia but relied on self-reporting or family proxy reporting on a retired player's memory, and it also noted that diseases of memory are rare in both the general population and NFL retirees. Despite those facts, the study recommends further research based on the reported numbers (1.9 percent of NFL retirees ages 30-39 and 6.1 percent of NFL retirees 50 and above), and that already is underway. Memory disorders affect many men and women who never played football or other sports.

"We are trying to understand it as it relates to our retired players. The survey makes no link between concussions and memory disorders. Concussion as one of many potential factors in memory disorders is being studied throughout the medical community, including our own study on the long-term effects of concussions on retired players.

"Meanwhile, our focus is also on the proper prevention and treatment of concussions in today's game. We do this through rules changes and enforcement; education of players, their families, coaches and team personnel; and ensuring that our players have the best medical care available. Our medical staffs take a cautious and conservative approach to managing concussions, including expanded use of neuropsychological testing and return-to-play guidelines."

NEW YORK -- Retired professional football players might have a higher-than-normal rate of Alzheimer's disease or other memory problems, suggests a preliminary study that provides more fuel for concerns about long-term risk of concussions.

Experts said the work wasn't definitive but that it fit in with other studies suggesting a long-term risk from head injuries in sports.

In the new work, 1,063 former players were asked if they had ever been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer's disease or other memory-related disease. About 2 percent of the former players ages 30 to 49 said yes. That's 19 times the rate for the same age group in the general population.

For retirees over 50, the rate of about 6 percent was about five times higher.

The study, which hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal, was done for the National Football League by researchers at the University of Michigan.

The results show the topic is worth further study, but they don't prove a link between playing football and later mental troubles, lead author David Weir said.

The study, which covered a variety of health and financial topics, relied on a telephone survey rather than a review of medical records, Weir noted. The information on memory problems came from a single question taken from earlier population surveys, and its vague wording makes the results hard to interpret, the researchers said.

"The study was not designed to diagnose or assess dementia," Weir said Wednesday. "The study did not conclude that football causes dementia."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello agreed and said further study already is under way.

"Memory disorders affect many men and women who never played football or other sports," he wrote in an e-mail. "The survey makes no link between concussions and memory disorders."

Dr. Anthony Alessi, who co-chairs the sports neurology section of the American Academy of Neurology, said smaller studies had indicated that repeated concussions or other brain injuries can bring on early dementia.

"This is the way the information is going," said Alessi, who is chief of neurology at the William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, Conn. "We need to take this study very seriously."

Alessi said the topic should be studied in sports other than football and that parents and coaches of young athletes with a head injury should let doctors determine when it's safe for their kids to play again.

Dr. Scott A. Small, an expert on Alzheimer's and memory at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, called the new result "intriguing and alarming."

"The most important thing it tells us is that additional studies need to be performed, and I would say, urgently," he said. "This is not a trivial matter."

Small noted that studies of brain samples from deceased athletes have established a link between repeated concussions and brain changes somewhat like those seen in Alzheimer's. So that makes the suggestion of the new study more plausible, he said.

Another study of retired professional football players, published in 2005, found that a history of three or more concussions was associated with a boost in risk of mild cognitive impairment after age 50. Kevin Guskiewicz, lead author of that study and director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said the findings of the new study didn't surprise him.

Nor would the study come as a shock to most football players, said Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae, president of the NFL Players Association.

"I think it just reinforces what players already know to be true," he said. "At some point in time, other people are going to have to face it for fact. It is what it is."

Any long-term risk of mental impairment is just part of the game, said Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who has a history of concussions.

"Yeah, you always think about things like that," he said. "But again, I'm a football player and that's what I do, so if it happens to me and something's wrong with me, then so be it. This is the life that I chose and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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