NFL Players at Greater Risk of Brain Disease, Study Finds

Illustration by Doug Fraser
A study of retired professional football players has found that they are more likely than nonathletes to suffer symptoms of cognitive impairment such as memory and speech problems -- a conclusion that that is sure to buttress the arguments of those who point to the risk of brain damage from the sport.

The study by the Loyola University Health System found that among 513 retired National Football League players surveyed, some 35 percent showed signs of cognitive impairment. Their average age was 61. In some cases, mild cognitive impairment is a precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

A growing body of scientific research indicates that repeated head blows from football -- particularly among players in college and in the NFL -- causes a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

The disease, which stems from lesions in the brain caused by ongoing trauma, produces a range of symptoms similar to those of dementia and even schizophrenia. It has led to calls for the NFL to fundamentally alter the rules of professional football to prevent brain damage to players, though some question whether such changes are likely or possible.

Last year, SF Weekly profiled one potential sufferer of CTE (which can only be definitively diagnosed after a patient's death), former USC offensive lineman Chris Brymer. Brymer, who went on to a successful career as a mortgage broker after a brief postcollege stint in the NFL, wound up homeless on the streets of San Francisco after he suffered a mental breakdown.

Loyola neuropsychologist Christopher Randolph, who presented the study at the 2011 Alzheimer's Association International Conference, said the findings might indicate that football players lose their "reserve" brain cells, leaving them more vulnerable to age-related brain disorders such as Alzheimer's.

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