NFL players face higher premature death risk from repetitive head impacts

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In recent years, the National Football League has come under fire for the way it handles concussions and hits to the head. One of the most severe conditions head injuries cause is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can lead to premature death. Although the NFL is working to limit concussions, researchers at Syracuse University say repetitive head impacts place players at a higher risk of developing CTE, even those that don’t result in concussions.

“We wanted to see if there was an association between repetitive head impacts and mortality among professional football players,” says lead author Brittany Kmush in a media release.

Certain positions are more dangerous than others

The study evaluates 14,366 NFL players from 1969-2017 and assigns each of them a “cumulative head impact index.” That number is based on the amount of time they spent practicing and playing football as reported in Pro Football Reference. Unfortunately, there is no data for special teams players so they are not part of the analysis.

Syracuse University’s NFL head impact risk index (Credit: JAMA Network Open)

The analysis also accounts for a player’s position using a risk adjustment based on helmet accelerometer studies. The scale was developed by the Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE Center at the Boston University School of Medicine. All of the analyses are also adjusted for birth year, body mass index, and height.

The report finds offensive and defensive linemen are at a higher risk of death due to several factors besides head injuries. Their index score is weighted heavily because of it. Regardless, every player on the field is found to have dangerous risk of head impact trauma.

“We found that increasing head impacts, not just concussions, increased the risk for mortality among NFL players,” Kmush, an assistant professor of public health at Syracuse adds.

Making the game safer for NFL players

The researchers suggest that the league continues to implement rule changes that will reduce the risk of hits to the head. Also, equipment should continue to improve so that the risk of injury is minimized in the event of a head impact. The researchers emphasize the need for further research however, saying younger athletes in the sport are also at risk too.

“NFL players are a highly selected group of people; we need future studies to focus on the effects of head impacts on youth, high school, and college football players as well as expand this research into other sports and activities. Our goal is to make sports safer.”

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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