Former Professional Football Players Showed Signs Of Mental Decline After Their Careers Were Over
Football players who suffered concussion symptoms during their careers show reduced mental skills after retirement, reveals new research.
Former NFL professionals who reported experiencing concussion performed worse over a series of cognitive tests than non-players, according to the findings.
Of the more than 350 ex-players who were studied for an average of 29 years after their playing career ended, those who reported experiencing concussion symptoms during their careers scored worse on assessments of episodic memory, sustained attention, processing speed and vocabulary.
However, the number of concussions diagnosed by a medical professional or length of playing career had no observed effect.
A follow-up study compared the ex-gridiron stars to more than 5,000 male volunteers in the general population who did not play professional football.
The findings, published in the journal Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, showed that cognitive performance was generally worse for former players than non-players.
The researchers said that while younger ex-players outperformed non-players on some tests, older retired players were more likely to perform worse than controls on cognitive tasks.
The team said that their results underline the importance of tracking concussion symptoms as opposed to diagnosed concussions in research.
Their findings also add further evidence to the impact a professional NFL career can have on accelerating cognitive aging.
Study senior author Professor Laura Germine, of Harvard Medical School, said: “It is well-established that in the hours and days after a concussion, people experience some cognitive impairment.
“However, when you look decades out, the data on the long-term impact has been mixed.
“These new findings from the largest study of its kind show that professional football players can still experience cognitive difficulties associated with head injuries decades after they have retired from the sport.”
A total of 353 retired NFL players completed hour-long neuropsychological tests through an online platform called TestMyBrain.
They completed the tests on a laptop or desktop computer that included assessments that measured processing speed, visual-spatial and working memory, and aspects of short- and long-term memory and vocabulary.
Recollected concussion symptoms were measured by asking the players the number of times they’d experienced any of a range of symptoms following a blow to the head during play or practice including headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of consciousness, memory problems and disorientation.
They were also asked whether they lost consciousness during their careers, and whether they were ever diagnosed with a concussion by a medical professional.
The results showed that the former players’ cognitive performance – for example, on memory tasks – was associated with recalled football concussion symptoms.
For example, Prof Germine said differences observed in visual memory scores between ex-players with the highest and lowest reported concussion symptoms were equivalent to the differences in cognitive performance between a typical 35-year-old and 60-year-old.
However, poor cognitive performance was not associated with diagnosed concussions, years of professional play or the age of taking up the sport.
Former Carolina Panthers’ star Luke Kuechly retired from football at the age of 28 after a series of injuries that included concussions, according to ABC News.
He joined a list of NFL players who retired before the age of 30.
The research team pointed out that many head injuries or sub-concussive blows may not have been diagnosed as concussions due to a lack of awareness at the time or underreporting of symptoms by players.
When comparing the retired players to a group of more than 5,000 men who did not play football, cognitive performance was generally worse for former players.
On two tests of processing speed, age-related differences in cognitive performance were larger among the former-player group than the non-player group, with older players performing worse.
Professor Ross Zafonte, principal investigator of the Football Players Health Study, said: “For both former players and researchers, we can glean some important takeaways from this study.
“Former players can support their cognitive health as they age by taking proactive steps and continuing to consult with their providers and educate themselves on symptoms of head injury.
“For researchers and providers, these findings support efforts to develop ways to enhance diagnosis and define long-term sequelae of concussion.”
Prof Germine added: “The Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) approach taken in this study is where this field is heading.
“We are grateful to the players and how much they have taught us. It would not have been possible to do a study like this without engaging and deeply involving their community.”
The researchers say that more studies are needed to track cognitive performance in former players as they age.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker