Experts explore connection between contact sports and dementia

Multiple recent reports have raised awareness of the dangers of repeated head trauma. The information contained in these studies is helping experts plan strategies to make contact sports safer.

In 1928, Dr. Harrison Martland first described “Dementia Pugilistica,” a disorder seen in boxers that results in impaired movement and thought. Today this condition is known as “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” and is associated with any sport such as football, hockey and wrestling, where the participants are subjected to repeated head blows.

A telephone survey of former NFL players revealed a startling number of participants who suffer from memory disorders. While this study has been criticized as unscientific, experts agree that there is some validity to the information and a need for further study is indicated.

This week the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians (AAPRP) held its annual meeting at the Mohegan Sun Casino. This convocation brought together physicians with first-hand experience treating athletes who have suffered multiple concussions.

A concussion is best defined as a complex process affecting the brain after trauma.

Typical symptoms include headache, dizziness, confusion and nausea. Surprisingly, many athletes accept headaches as part of their sport and never equate them with repeated head trauma.

“I was a Harvard graduate and never saw the connection between episodes of headache and personality change with the head blows I took as a wrestler and football player until I sought medical attention,” said Chris Nowinski.

Nowinski now serves as co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and was a speaker at the AAPRP meeting. He spends much of his time on the road educating athletes and urging them to seek help.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) consists of a triad of symptoms: cognitive
decline, personality changes and movement disorders.

Dr. Ann Mckee, a neuropathologist at Boston University, has published extensively on CTE and spoke at the AAPRP. Dr. Mckee has studied the brains of NFL players who have generously donated them for post-mortem study.

“These brains show deposition of tau protein in crucial areas of the brain that is disproportionate to brains that have not been traumatized,” said McKee. She has found this abnormal accumulation in football players as young as 18.

“This is more than just a sports problem, it is a public health issue,” according to Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon who has dedicated much of his career to treating athletes and now serves as a director of the Boston University-based center. These same changes are also found in military personnel, victims of abuse and others who have been subjected to brain injury.

The question now is how can the problem be corrected? Is there a way of treating these tau protein deposits? Is there too much opportunity for brain injury in football and other sports? At what age should contact sports be started?

After reading the Healthy Sports column two weeks ago on the internet, a young woman contacted me regarding her father and his brother who played in the NFL. Along with another brother who played college football, all have been diagnosed with dementia.

While this seems like a situation where heredity is a probable factor, she reports that two other brothers who never played football have no evidence of dementia. She is now in contact with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and her family is considering brain donation.

The recently published NFL study reported that retired NFL players are typically generous and support their communities. Whoever thought that this spirit of giving would continue after their deaths?

Brain donation is crucial to solving this problem. If you know of someone who has suffered repeated head trauma, please contact Megan Wullf at 617-638-6143.

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