A new study published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that National Football League (NFL) players may be at a higher risk of death associated with Alzheimer's and other impairments of the brain and nervous system than the general U.S. population. These results are consistent with recent studies by other research institutions that suggest an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among football players.
The study looked at 3,439 NFL players who played at least five seasons between 1959-1988. The study relied on death certificate information for causes of death; at the time of analysis only 10% of the participants had died. Of the 334 players who had died, Alzheimer's, ALS, and Parkinson's Disease were listed for 17 of them.
While the findings do not establish a direct cause-effect relationship between football-related concussions and death from these neurodegenerative disorders, say the authors, they do support multiple other research studies that have raised concerns about the longer-term health effects of recurring concussions.
The study highlights the fact that athletes, including professional football players, generally have a better than average overall health status than the general U.S. population. However, death involving neurodegenerative causes among the retired players was three times higher than in the general U.S. population, and the risk for two major subcategories, Alzheimer's and ALS, were four times higher. Of the 334 deceased former players, neurodegenerative causes were reported 17 times; it would be expected that in a group this size from the general population, neurodegenerative causes would have been reported only 5.2 times.
In addition to the overall comparison with the general population, the study also compared the deaths of players associated with neurodegenerative disorders based on playing positions. According to the study, higher neurodegenerative deaths were observed among players in speed positions (quarterback, running back, halfback, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, defensive back, safety, and linebacker) compared with players in non-speed positions (all defensive and offensive linemen).
NIOSH has developed a notification plan to be distributed to the players included in the study. Notification includes a fact sheet that provides information on the findings of the study and recommendations to the NFL and the NFL Players Association.