For more than a century, head trauma has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases later in life, especially dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). These conditions have been reported to be substantial in those who played contact sports, especially football. Recent publicity has focused on the dangers of football, especially as played in high school, college, and professionally. There have been links claimed to chronic traumatic encephalopathy later in life, which have some people calling for an outright ban on American football. Football is arguably America’s most popular sport. It is a collision sport where head trauma and concussions are common, which in theory may have implications for brain health later in life. But football does have redeeming qualities, especially physical fitness, which may be protective for brain disease later in life.
A while back, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota did a study of football players from two Rochester high schools who played football between 1946 and 1956. They then reviewed the medical records of these players and compared them to non-football playing students and the general population. They found no increased incidence of neurologic brain disease in the football players. As a follow-up to that study they did a second study, which looked at football players in the same schools who played football between 1956 and 1970. They also looked at non-football playing athletes (swimmers, basketball players, and wrestlers) who played during the same period. They identified 296 football players and 190 athletes engaged in other sports. They then reviewed the medical records of these athletes. Again they found no difference in brain diseases later in life in the two groups.
It is interesting to note that football between 1946 and 1970 was very different from today’s football, both from the standpoint of protective equipment and player size. There were no penalties for headhunting and spearing. Today’s players are bigger, stronger, and faster than those of years ago. Also, it wasn’t until 1980 that the first standards for equipment like helmets and pads were adopted. Also, unlike today, most head injuries went unnoticed or unreported, unless they were severe. If you got your “bell rung,” you just kept playing.
The authors of this study are quick to point out that the results of this study should not be misinterpreted. There is indisputable evidence linking head trauma and brain disease. They point out that this was a small study and more, larger studies are needed. Also, more study needs to be done to determine whether the degree of physical fitness required for football, offsets the negative effects of head trauma. Additionally, the authors note that they only looked at high school players, not college or professional players. So more work needs to be done. In my opinion, the increasing awareness of head injuries in football is a good thing, but I don’t believe that eliminating the game entirely is the answer.