96% of Deceased NFL Players Showed Signs of Brain Disease in New Study

96% of Deceased NFL Players Showed Signs of Brain Disease in New Study
General Health

Professional football players take some violent tackles. Their helmets are intended to protect them from immediate damage, but every hit rattles the brain inside the skull. Over time, trauma to the brain can add up to debilitating injury and disease. A new study on traumatic brain injury reveals the problem may be more widespread than health experts and players ever imagined.

Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have discovered via a study of 91 former NFL players, now deceased, that 87 of them showed evidence of a degenerative brain disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. That’s about 96% of people involved. [1]

The data was published on the website for the Concussion Legacy Foundation, founded by Dr. Robert Cantu.

CTE was found in a total of 131 brain tissues out of 165 sampled in the lab, which is about 79%. All of the individuals studied played football either professionally, semi-professionally, or in college or high school before their deaths.

Forty percent of the players who tested positive for CTE were offensive or defensive lineman who came into violent contact with each other during every play of a game. The finding affirms past research that found that regular, repeat, fairly minor head trauma may be the most dangerous kind to players, versus the more occasional violent collisions that result in concussions.

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Researchers have used brain scans to detect CTE in living patients, but the disease can only be identified in deceased individuals. Scientists have little to compare the scans to, as former players who donate their brains for research typically suspect they have CTE while they are alive.

Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, says the results of are “remarkably consistent” with past research, regardless of the caveats of the study.

“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” said McKee, who runs the lab in collaboration with the VA and BU. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

The NFL has been taking concussions and other head injuries more seriously in recent years, channeling more of its resources into preventing larger catastrophes. In its 2015 safety report, the NFL said the number of concussions in regular season games fell from 173 in 2012 to 112 last season. [2]

The league now conducts pregame medical assessments of its players, in addition to on-field and postgame assessments of players who take hard hits. The kickoff spot has also been moved 5 yards forward to reduce the number of kick returns. [3]

“We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources,” the NFL said in a statement. “We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the NIH and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”

The NFL at one time disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, but the league admitted in federal court documents in 2014 that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems that are likely to set in at “notably younger ages” than the regular population. [4]

The findings – the results of data prepared by actuaries – were released as part of a lawsuit between the NFL and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them. In 2013, the NFL agreed to set aside $765 million to cover players’ injuries and diseases caused by head trauma sustained during their careers.

Additional Sources:

[1] PBS Frontline

[2] CNBC

[3] CNN

[4] The New York Times