NFL players have higher risk of death from Alzheimer's disease

A new study suggests professional football players may be at higher risk of death from brain-degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), than the general U.S. population.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at 3,439 National Football League (NFL) players who had played for at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988.  At the time of analysis, 10 percent of the participants had died – including seven with Alzheimer’s and seven with ALS.

According to study author Dr. Everett Lehman, an occupational epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the data indicated “NFL players had three times the risk of death from neurodegenerative causes than what you would expect to see in the general population.”

A player’s risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS, specifically, was approximately four times higher than the general population, he added.

Furthermore, when splitting the players into groups according to position played, the researchers found the risk could be even higher.

Non-linemen, such as quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends, were three times more likely than defensive or offensive linemen—and six times more likely than the general population—to die from neurodegenerative diseases, according to Lehman.

“At first blush, people would think linemen are banging into each other much more often than other players—just about every play—but based on a couple other studies in college and high school players, we know that non-linemen positions have a higher risk of concussions,” Lehman explained. “Non-linemen hit each other at higher speeds and higher impacts, so you have more concussions.”

The data adds to the rising concerns over concussions and the later development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease that can resemble Alzheimer’s or ALS.  CTE has been implicated in the suicides of a number of former NFL players, including Junior Seau and Dave Duerson.

In response to these deaths, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Wednesday the league would be donating $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to fund research on brain injuries.

Rising concerns

While Lehman said the study was “limited” by the low number of deaths in the study, he said the results were still statistically significant and fall in line with other reports suggesting football players have an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

While Lehman said he and his colleagues were not able to directly assess the impact of concussions or CTE in this study, “recent research now suggests that CTE may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths.”

“I think this is one of the first studies to quantify the risk of neurodegenerative or neurologic impairment in NFL players,” Lehman said.  “…It’s something that needs to be further examined, and players and those treating them need to be aware of the potential risks.  It could be informative for the current generation of players.”