Study Reveals High Rate Of CTE In Former Football Players

A recent study shows CTE diagnosed in 99% of former NFL players and 87% of players on all levels.

The degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was diagnosed in 110 of 111 ex-NFL players whose brains had been donated to research. This pera a published study in The Journal of the American Medical Association Tuesday.

Ben Omalu
Dr. Bennet Omalu has pioneered extensive research on CTE and was the focal character of the movie Concussion.

In all, CTE has been diagnosed in 87% of the 202 former football players studied — including high school, college, semi-pro, NFL and Canadian Football League. This study is the largest conducted into the potential link between brain trauma in football and CTE and was led by researchers at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System.

“This is just a tremendous resource for research,” said Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee, a co-author on the study..

“All this tissue was very generously donated. But it’s not just sitting in a vault. It can be used by researchers to detect the disease, and to help find the disease during a person’s life,” McKee said.

The authors of the study noted in the report: “The findings suggest that CTE may be related to prior participation in football, and that a high level of play may be related to substantial disease burden.”

Results of the study also discovered the following:

  • At 27%, suicide was the most common cause of death among those with mild stages of CTE (stages 1-2). McKee stated previously that Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, was “at least Stage 2.”
  • A neurodegenerative-related cause of death — including the symptoms most commonly related to Parkinson’s disease and dementia — is the leading cause of death (47%) of ex-players studied who had more severe cases of CTE (Stages 3-4).
  • Among 27 participants found to have a mild CTE traits, 26 had mood and/or behavioral issues prior to their deaths. Of the 84 deceased players with more severe cases of CTE, 89% displayed mood or behavioral symptoms.

Researchers believe mood and behavioral symptoms — including anxiety and impulsiveness — are each telltale signs of early stages CTE. As it progresses, CTE has been shown to impact memory, speech and motor functions.

The NFL, as well as other sports leagues have upgraded concussion protocols as research and lawsuits increased over the last decade.

The origins of CTE research go back over a century when, then, it was referred to as pugilistic dementia, an ailment first discovered in boxers. For over a decade researchers have grown in the understanding of what is now known as CTE, including the groundbreaking work of neuropathologist Bennet Omalu’s brain study of former Pittsburgh Steelers hall-of-fame center Mike Webster.

Since Webster’s death at the age of 50 in 2002, more high-profile players — including Seau,  Dave Duerson, Frank Gifford, John Mackey, Kenny Stabler, Justin Strzelczyk  — have been diagnosed with CTE posthumously. While researchers are currently working to diagnose CTE by blood test or imaging, the only scientifically accepted method to currently detect CTE is via autopsy examination of the brain.

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