Who would have thought that American football could be so damaging to the brain? Boxing yes. Here force is targeted at the container for the brain. However, it turns out that other contact sports may also damage the brain according to a recent study of 202 ex-footballers who donated their brains before death. The clinical condition of the patients was recorded and correlated with histopathological finding. The mean age at death is rather young at 66. Hold on to your seat and read on to learn that fully 87% of football players’ brains fulfilled the histopathological criteria for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a progressive neurodegenerative disorder associated with repetitive head trauma). In fact it was present in 110 of the subsample of 111 footballers who were lucky (unlucky) enough to make the National Football League (NFL). Further, 86% of these NFL players had severe pathology. Yes, brains may be more willingly donated when cognitive deterioration is present than when it is not, leading to inclusion bias. A prospective study is needed. But should we wait the 20-40 years needed for the results? Even if this study has overestimated the effect, the bias could not create so large an association if there were none. Would you encourage your grandchildren to play? If your heart packs up, your lungs fail or your pancreas turns cancerous, you die as yourself. But if your cerebral cortex is damaged you live as someone else.
— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director
- Mez J, Daneshvar DH, Kiernan PT, et al. Clinopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football. JAMA. 2017; 318(4): 360-70.