NFL players at greater risk for brain disease, study says
Former NFL players are far more likely to die from brain disease than the general public, a federal workplace safety agency concludes in a study released hours before the NFL kicked off its 2012 season.
The report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) put the spotlight back on the issue of violent hits and player concussions, a controversy fueled in the offseason by lawsuits and a crackdown on bounties New Orleans Saints coaches offered for knocking opponents out of games.
The study found ex-players were three or four times more likely to die from brain diseases. The report was based on new analysis of a 1994 NIOSH study involving 3,439 players who spent at least five seasons in the NFL from 1959 to 1988.
"These results are consistent with recent studies suggesting an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players," says Everett Lehman, lead author of the report.
The NFL faces about 140 lawsuits by more than 3,000 former players alleging that the league failed for decades to protect their brain health and ignored concussion dangers.
Frank Wycheck saw his 11-year NFL career end because of concussions.
"It's always been the fear, and that's why I think a lot of the guys in the lawsuit feel like that information could have changed some guys' minds about how long they were going to play," said Wycheck, 40, who retired in 2003. "And I think that's why you see a lot of anger and frustration over doctors possibly having the information that could've changed their lives."
The NFL announced Wednesday a $30 million donation to support research that could include inquiries into links between brain injuries, such as concussions, and long-term brain disorders.
"Well before this study was released, the NFL took significant steps to address head injuries in football, provide medical and financial assistance to our retired players and raise awareness of the most effective ways to prevent, manage and treat concussions," the NFL said in a statement. "The NFL has strengthened its playing rules to remove unnecessary hits to the head and better protect players in speed and defenseless positions."
NIOSH researchers reviewed death certificates for neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gerhig's disease. They also looked for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is not defined as a cause of death, but it can be mistaken for Alzheimer's, the authors write. For decades, experts have known CTE takes a toll in boxing, but discoveries since the 1994 report also link it to other sports.
Contributing: Robert Klemko
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