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Monday, 08 May 2017 01:00

Contact Sport and Dementia

Recent research done in London suggests that there may be a link between repetitive sub-concussive head impacts and degenerative disease.
In the small study the brains of six football players, who developed dementia after long careers in the sport, were examined post mortem and all six were found to have Alzheimer’s disease. Four of them also showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.

CTE - First diagnosed in 2002 in a pro football players

In the general population the incidence of CTE is only around 12%, making the findings of the study quite significant. It’s notable though that researchers were unable to confirm that the CTE developed from playing football alone. In addition, no genetic or wider factors of the players’ lives were taken into account. This missing data makes it hard to determine whether the players would have developed dementia had they not spent time playing football.
Dr Helen Ling, a co-author of the study, said that the important issue now would be to follow up on how many retired footballers develop dementia. The aim would be to determine whether footballers – or indeed, any contact sport players – are at higher risk than the normal population and to then put protective strategies in place.

Previously, early diagnosis of CTE was not possible as the condition had only been noted in post mortem examinations of the brain. The recent funding and study, however, has enabled researchers to recognise a build-up of a protein known as tau which can slowly kill the brain cells. Early screening of professional athletes could help to identify those more at risk for developing CTE.
Among others, the Alzheimer’s Society called for more research to be done on this issue, with studies containing much larger numbers of participants as well a control group of footballers who don’t have cognitive problems. Further studies should also take football players’ genetic background and lifestyles into account, in an effort to determine the exact risk that impact sport possibly has on the occurrence of dementia-related diseases.

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