Study Links NFL, Higher Dementia Rates

Former professional football players are being diagnosed with Alzheimer's and similar diseases at an alarming rate, says a study commissioned by the NFL. Head injuries have long been a concern of NFL players, and this report has put the league in a tough situation.

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A report out today is stirring up new controversy over one of football's most controversial subjects: head injuries and their suspected connection to dementia and mental impairment. The survey was commissioned by the NFL. The retired players who were questioned had a particularly high rate of memory-related diseases, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research conducted phone interviews with a random sample of 1,063 retired NFL players. The interviews happened in November and December of last year. Researchers asked the players a wide range of questions, including this one: Has a doctor ever told you, you had some memory-related illness? Six percent of players 50 and older said yes, 1.9 percent of players between 30 and 49 said yes. The 1.9 percent is 19 times higher than the national average.

Dr. JULIAN BAILES (Neurosurgeon): The remarkable aspect of this study is that it's a study that they commissioned.

GOLDMAN: They, says neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes, is the NFL, the same NFL that has, in recent years, discounted any outside studies, including Dr. Bailes', showing a link between retired players and brain problems.

Dr. BAILES: We told them this four years ago. It's fully in lockstep with other results. But my opinion, ball's in their court about how they want to react.

GOLDMAN: So far, cautiously. While acknowledging it commissioned the report, the NFL warns it's not hard science. An NFL spokesman wrote in an email: The survey did not diagnose dementia but relied on self-reporting by retirees or their family. The survey's lead author, researcher David Weir, also noted that the numbers being reported as alarming, particularly the incidence of brain illness in 30 to 49-year-old retirees being 19 times higher than the national average. That figure, says Weir, is based on a very small sample of respondents.

Mr. DAVID WEIR (Researcher): That total amounted to a total of nine people in our study. So it's hard for me to conclude there's a 19-times elevation on the basis of only nine people being observed, and again, all they told us was a self report. They've been told they had this problem.

GOLDMAN: Still, the study recommends further research based on the results, and according to an NFL spokesman, that kind of research already is underway. The league's medical committee on concussions has an ongoing study of retired players and the long-term effects of concussion. That committee includes a controversial character, Dr. Elliot Pellman. He used to lead the committee but removed himself from that position because of negative press. Pellman had been critical of outside brain injury studies, like the one done by Dr. Julian Bailes. And Pellman, in the past, had stated that returning to play after a concussion did not involve significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season. That contradicted reliable research and experience by other experts and former players.

The NFL's ongoing study is due to be completed in a year or two. In the meantime, the controversy over football head injuries and suspected long-term brain problems continues. In recent years, there've been disturbing reports of former NFL players with Alzheimer's disease, severe depression and even those who committed suicide. Critics of the league say the NFL has tried to play down the issue because of the bad publicity it creates. The NFL vehemently denies this. According to the league spokesman, there is more research and more knowledge of concussions today, thanks to the leadership of the NFL.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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