BUFFALO, N.Y. — The subject of head trauma and athletes involved in hard-hitting contact sports has become a hot button topic among both the scientific and athletic communities in recent years. Many now believe that these athletes are putting themselves at a much greater risk of serious neurological and cognitive problems later in life, but a recent study has come to contradictory conclusions.
A study by researchers from the University at Buffalo compared former National Football League and National Hockey League athletes with current participants in non-contact sports. Due to recent research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, the researchers expected to find much higher rates of early-onset dementia among retired professional sports players. However, the study revealed no evidence of early-onset dementia in the retired players.
The study assessed 21 former players for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres based on neuropsychological measures associated with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and executive function.
Many players who suffer from CTE also suffer from early-onset dementia, but complicating matters is the fact that CTE can only be diagnosed after death through an autopsy. There is also evidence that it’s possible to suffer from CTE brain damage without any clinical symptoms.
Seeking to discover just how prevalent CTE is in athletes, the researchers tested the 21 professional athletes for signs of MCI using a series of comprehensive neurological assessments. These assessments included questionnaires plying the participants with questions about personality and executive function.
Researchers also scanned each athlete’s brain to look for signs of MCI, which is thought to be a precursor of early-onset dementia. The participants were asked about their diet, lifestyle, drug and alcohol use, and common cardiovascular problems. They gave blood samples to test for cholesterol levels, and were given thorough physical exams.
“We don’t deny that CTE exists in some former athletes,” says co-author and lead investigator Barry S. Willer, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the university, in a release. “It has been linked to contact sports and concussions that happen while playing those sports, but it’s not a sure thing. The larger question is, how prevalent is the problem?”
“We went into this study with the expectation that we’d find any number of former athletes with dementia,” adds study co-investigator John Leddy, director of the UB Concussion Management Clinic and professor of orthopedics, in a university news release. “And while some of the former professional athletes reported concerns that they felt they were experiencing a decline in memory, and other cognitive issues, the study results did not bear this out.”
Researchers then compared the professional athletes’ results to a control group of 21 amateur participants in non-contact sports such as swimming, cycling, and running. Surprisingly, they found little to no difference between the variable group and the control group in cognitive ability, memory, and executive function.
The largest differences in health between the pro hockey and football players and the non-contact athletes were that the professional players had significantly higher risks for obesity, chronic pain, orthopedic surgeries, and severe sleep or anxiety problems. But, those differences were mostly attributed by the research team to overall health differences among the two groups. The non-contact sport athletes were considerably healthier, more educated, and weighed less than the retired pro athletes.
Leddy and his co-author Barry Willer have long been known for their research on concussions, CTE, and early-onset dementia. They developed a new recovery method for concussions that assists concussion sufferers in becoming more active after only a relatively brief rest period.
The study is published in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, the official journal of the Brain Injury Association of America.