Study Reveals Increased Dementia Risk in NFL Players

September 30, 2009

The New York Times reports that a study commissioned by the National Football League shows memory-related diseases appear more often in the league’s former players than in the population at large:

All rates appear small. But if they are accurate, they would have arresting real-life effects when applied across a population as large as living N.F.L. retirees. A normal rate of cognitive disease among N.F.L. retirees age 50 and above (of whom there are about 4,000) would result in 48 of them having the condition; the rate in the Michigan study would lead to 244. Among retirees ages 30 through 49 (of whom there are about 3,000), the normal rate cited by the Michigan researchers would yield about 3 men experiencing problems; the rate reported among N.F.L. retirees leads to an estimate of 57.

So the Michigan findings suggest that although 50 N.F.L. retirees would be expected to have dementia or memory-related disease, the actual number could be more like 300. This would not prove causation in any individual case, but it would support a connection between pro football careers and heightened prevalence of later-life cognitive decline that the league has long disputed.

Payout Perspective:

Here’s a study confirming what has really become obvious over the last several years:  repeated concussions seem directly related to the onset of early dementia.

Former WWE wrestler (and Harvard University graduate) Christopher Nowinski has been at the vanguard of this issue since having seen his own career end early due to multiple concussions; having an NFL-commissioned study as support for his cause could help at least in terms of visibility of the issue.  There was significant media coverage of the issue in the months following the Chris Benoit double murder-suicide in 2007 (Benoit, 40-years-old at the time, had a brain — due to its repeatedly being concussed —  akin to an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient’s), but coverage has waned as that tragedy faded from public memory.

The study’s implications for our sport are clear.  Although I believe Mixed Martial Arts is considerably safer than boxing (in large part because fights end in MMA as opposed to how boxing permits an already brain-injured fighter approximately ten seconds to recover in order to continue receiving punishment to the brain), KO’s are a big part of the game, and so therefore are concussions.

The best the sport can do is to create an environment making an inherently risky activity such as fighting as low-risk as possible.  That means giving serious attention — at all levels, from promotion to commission — to the issue.

If in the end that means forced retirements for (and I’m just pulling a name, not a random one by any means, but just by way of example) someone like Sean Salmon, a fighter who has suffered what would appear to be more than his fair share of devastating knockouts, it’s preferable to the inevitable tragedies (perhaps not at a Benoit level, but there would be more homicides, suicides and the like) the coming decades could bring.

The MMA world needs to heed these studies.

3 Responses to “Study Reveals Increased Dementia Risk in NFL Players”

  1. Matt C. on September 30th, 2009 8:44 AM

    Great information. Now if someone just uses it to make MMA safer.

  2. Zac Robinson on September 30th, 2009 9:07 AM

    Nice work David and you are spot on. I don’t know if the game can be changed a great deal, but forced retirements or the inability to get a license might be fitting. Fighters need to read this as well. I know some of them do this, but during their career they need to be setting themselves up for when it is all over. That way they don’t have to fight two or three or four extra times because they need the money.

  3. BrainSmasher on September 30th, 2009 12:25 PM

    Good study. But im not sure it is really that relevant to higher level promotions. But like you said at the lower level i can see it being a problem. Most fighters at the higher level really dont suffer many KO’s or concussions. Even guys known for suspect chins are lucky to have 5 KOs in their entire career. The real problem is journeymen who fight every other week win or lose in obscure promotions around the country. Just collecting as many paychecks as possible picking up a dozen KOs over a few years. The other people at risk are the “legends” who just wont retire. As they age they become more prone to KOs than they were in their Prime. Couture, Tank, Chuck, Frye, Nog, Pulver, Menne, etc. I think it is very hard to tell these guys they are not allowed to make a living fighting. But what i think should be done is a extending suspention that increases as you incure KO/TKO’. This will make these journeymen and Legends alike pick their fights wisely. While also making sure they take each fight serious and train. If a fighter known going in that a KO loss will lead to an 18 month suspention. He will be less likely to take a fight just for the payday and put little effort into training for the fight. This would protect guys like Frye and Tank currently and lessor names who are running the Travis Fulton circuit fighting every week.

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