Retired NFL Players Have a Higher Risk of Dying from Alzheimer’s Disease

NFL plans on donating $30 million to brain-related research.

Posted: 09/07/2012 04:35 PM EDT

While many of us are excited that the NFL is back and have chosen our fantasy football teams, a new study reminds us that this game that we love can be very dangerous.

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at 3,400 retired professional players who played from 1959 to 1988 and found that they are four times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) than the general population. Quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs accounted for the majority of these deaths.

In response to these findings, the NFL announced that it would be donating $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on brain trauma.

But why are football players so vulnerable to dying from these diseases?

Researchers suspect that a long history of repeated head injuries and concussions suffered during years of playing football might be to blame. Past studies have shown a link between head trauma and brain function problems:

Lab research has specifically linked concussions in athletes to a distinct disorder known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a progressive decline in brain cell function that eventually causes problems with memory, movement and balance.

Dr. Ann C. McKee, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has analyzed autopsied brain tissue from athletes, including football players, to find the damage that marks CTE.

The new study expands those lab findings, by uncovering higher risks of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's or ALS, according to McKee. (Right now, CTE can be pinpointed only after a brain autopsy.) "This is an important paper representing a significant advance that ties clinical findings to our neuropathological data," McKee said in an email.

Today, the NFL has made some regulation changes in hopes of ensuring the safety of their players, such as reforming helmets and fining players for dangerous head hits.

CTE is not a new issue when it comes to retired NFL players. In May when retired NFL player Junior Seau committed suicide, BET.com reported that growing data had shown that CTE has also been linked to numerous football players’ suicides over the years. A string of lawsuits, with more than 1,500 plaintiffs, have been filed against the NFL.

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(Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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