John Mackey and Ollie Matson, Pro Football Hall of Famers, are among 33 deceased NFL players diagnosed in a new study with a brain disease linked to concussions. But the study also reports early-stage cases of some who played only high school football.
The authors say that sounds an alarm that must be heard at the youth level of football and other sports with head impacts.
"I think that's a very worrisome thing and should be a huge wake-up call," says Robert Cantu, neurosurgeon and co-author of the study released today in Boston.
The disease is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For now, it can only be diagnosed by examination of brain tissue after death. "It's never been reported in a person without a history of head trauma," says Ann McKee, neuropathologist and lead author of the study.
Mackey, who died last year at 69, played 10 NFL seasons as a tight end. Matson, who died last year at 80, played 14 NFL seasons as a running back. Both suffered from dementia. The study identifies four stages of CTE; dementia is found in Stage IV.
The study primarily analyzes athletes but includes military veterans who were concussed by explosives.
Of the six former high school football players, two were military veterans who also had exposures to explosives.
A news release names five diagnosed with CTE: Mackey, Matson, former NFL and Canadian league running back Cookie Gilchrist (who died in 2011 at 75), former Boston College linebacker Ron Perrymann (who also died in 2011 at 42) and Eric Pelly (who died at 18 in 2006).
Pelly played high school football and amateur rugby. He died 10 days after a concussion in rugby. He previously had a concussion in football. The study said he had Stage I CTE.
The study was done by investigators from Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, in collaboration with Boston's Sports Legacy Institute -- a group focused on brain injury in athletes and other groups such as the military.
The authors say they hope a method will soon be developed to identify CTE in living people so they can be treated.
Cantu says the study, which identifies 69 overall cases of CTE, more than equals published cases in the world.
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