Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a rare degenerative disease that results from multiple blows to the heat. The disease, which results in clumps of Tau protein in the brain, spreads slowly and kills brain cells as it advances. According to a new study investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players, the disease is more common than previously thought. This research, published in the medical journal JAMA, found the disease in 99% of brains of football players in the NFL.
How Common is CTE Among Football Players?
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a severe neurodegenerative brain disease commonly found in athletes and veterans with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Early symptoms of the disease include mood and behavioral changes, including poor impulse control, paranoia, and depression. As the illness spreads, some patients develop memory loss, judgment problems, memory and thinking dysfunction, and progressive dementia. CTE can presently only be diagnosed during an autopsy.
Previous research has already found that football players are at high risk for the disease. A new study published in JAMA aimed to determine just how widespread the disease is among football players.
This latest research is the largest CTE study of its kind. All brains studied had football listed as their primary exposure to head trauma. The main criteria for submitting a brain was also repetitive head trauma, even if the person displayed no symptoms of brain disease.
The study involved 202 deceased former football players who played high school, college, or professional football. Out of 202 brains, researchers found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 177. NFL players were at the highest risk of the disease with chronic traumatic encephalopathy found in 110 out of 111 brains. The disease was also found in 3 of 14 high school players, and evidence of it was also detected in 48 of the 53 brains of college football players.
“While we still don’t know what the incidence is in the general population or in the general population of football players,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the study’s senior author and chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System, “the fact that we were able to gather this many cases says this disease is much more common than we previously realized.”
In addition to surveying how common the disease may be, the JAMA study also examined the brain pathology of the disease and clinical history of participants. Four stages of the disease were identified based on the pathological severity in the brains. People who had a mild build-up of Tau protein in stages 1 or 2 were more likely to have died by suicide and experienced cognitive symptoms.
The JAMA study helped establish the link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy and football, and it may assist in the development of new strategies, rules, and protective equipment to protect players from this degenerative disease. Still, it’s important to point out that researchers can’t use this study to come to some meaningful conclusions about the disease because all the analyzed brains were donated, typically by families who were concerned the individual might have been affected. Because all players involved in the study had at least some symptoms of CTE, the results may be somewhat skewed and inconclusive.
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