Every year on Super Bowl Sunday, people gather around the TV to root for their home team and to place all sorts of bets—who will win, if they’ll beat the point spread, the total number of passing yards, and so on—all based on the predictions of sports bookies. But there’s one prediction that our brain imaging work says is a sure thing—you can bet that nearly every player on the field will have experienced some form of damage to the brain from playing football.
All those crushing helmet-to-helmet hits over a player’s career can cause traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) that often go undetected. As the number of hits to the head add up, it is associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, anger, attention problems, weight gain, brain fog, substance abuse, memory loss, and suicide.
Football players literally have their brains, their mental health, and their lives on the line every time they take the field.
For a 2011 study on 100 active and former NFL players from 27 different teams, Amen Clinics took detailed histories, had the players perform cognitive tests and did both brain SPECT scans and QEEG studies on each of them. The results were very clear—playing football damaged multiple areas of the brain in greater than 90% of the players.
There was persistent damage to the following areas of the brain:
- Prefrontal cortex (judgment, planning, forethought, and impulse control)
- Temporal lobes (learning, memory, and mood stability)
- Cerebellum (mental agility and processing speed)
To date, Amen Clinics have conducted 4 studies on gridiron greats. Their 2012 study in Translational Psychiatry found that as retired NFL players’ weight goes up—which it often does after they stop playing—the size and function of their brain goes down.
Even a study sponsored by the National Football League itself found that retired players ages 30-49 were given a dementia-related diagnosis at 20 times the rate of age-matched populations, while players over the age of 50 received a dementia-related diagnosis 5 times the national average.
At this point, there is little doubt that playing football at any level can cause long-term cognitive and emotional trouble.
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