Recently, the risks of long-term brain injury to professional athletes and military personnel have received extensive media attention. Chris Borland and Jacob Bell were professional National Football League players who retired, citing their concern over a progressive neurodegenerative disease called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that is linked to repetitive head injuries. Symptoms can include headaches, short-term memory loss, as well as rage, depression, and debilitating dementia. CTE is not a new disease; years ago it was observed in boxers and called "dementia pugilistic."
Do amateur athletes share the risk, particularly if they play contact sports such as boxing, football, hockey, martial arts, or soccer?
According to a recent study by researchers at Mayo Clinic and Boston University School of Medicine, amateur athletes do share the risk of CTE to some extent. The study looked for signs of CTE in people who had died of another neurodegenerative disease (e.g., Alzheimer’s) and donated their brains to the Mayo Clinic Brain Bank. Roughly one out of every three men who had participated in amateur contact sports in their youth had signs of CTE brain pathology when they died years later. In contrast, no signs of CTE were detected in almost 200 individuals who had not participated in amateur contact sports, even in 33 people who had experienced a single incident of traumatic brain injury or concussion unrelated to sports.
While signs of CTE damage to the brain are concerning, this study may not be as alarming as it appears. Since the researchers only examined people who had died with a neurodegenerative disease, the study didn't determine whether a history of amateur contact sports raises the risk of neurodegenerative disease and dementia. The amateur athletes were at a higher risk of CTE pathology but, in this study, they did not appear to suffer from clinical signs of CTE or from worsened features of dementia such as earlier onset or more severe symptoms.
Concussions and repetitive sub-concussive injuries have been reported to increase the risk of dementia. However, this is a new field badly in need of research. The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation is currently funding Dr. Samuel Gandy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to develop tools to more accurately monitor brain health and neurodegeneration in people with a history of head impacts.
While the research continues, athletes of all ages including school children should take strong precautions to protect their heads.
Dr. Penny Dacks was previously the Director of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation. She was trained in neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the University of Arizona, and Queen's University (Canada) with individual fellowships from the National Institute of Health, the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation, the ARCS Foundation and the Hilda and Preston Davis Foundation. She has authored over 18 peer-reviewed scientific articles and is a member of the Society for Neuroscience, the Gerontological Society of America, the Endocrine Society and the Association for Women in Science.
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