Athletes suffer long-term effects from concussions
Published Tuesday, January 27, 2009 7:00PM EST
Athletes who suffer concussions in their younger years experience mental and physical health problems more than 30 years later, a new study has found.
The study, published in the online edition of the journal Brain, compared 19 healthy former athletes who had sustained concussions 30 years ago with 21 athletes who had no history of concussion.
Researchers found that athletes who had experienced one or two concussions in early adulthood had poorer memory function and attention spans and made slower physical movements compared to athletes who had never had a concussion.
According to the researchers, studies on the effects of concussions tend to focus on the immediate aftermath of the injury and on determining when it is safe for an athlete to return to competition.
There is little research on the long-term effects that concussions can cause, they said.
"This study shows that the effects of sports concussions in early adulthood persist beyond 30 years post-concussion and that it can cause cognitive and motor function alterations as the athletes age," lead study author Louis De Beaumont, a graduate student at the University of Montreal, said in a statement. "In the light of these findings, athletes should be better informed about the cumulative and persistent effects of sports concussion on mental and physical processes so that they know about the risks associated with returning to their sport."
For their study, de Beaumont and his colleagues recruited former university-level athletes between the ages of 50 and 60 who were still fit, healthy and able to engage in physical activity at least three times per week.
They asked the former athletes to answer health questionnaires, and then used a variety of tests to assess their physical and cognitive abilities.
Compared to athletes who had never suffered a concussion, those who did:
- scored lower on memory tests
- had delayed physical and mental responses to various stimuli
- exhibited reduced velocity in their physical movements
The findings echo tests conducted on athletes three years post concussion, which means the injury has an impact on athletes' long-term health.
According to de Beaumont, follow-up studies are necessary to determine if concussions can leave athletes more vulnerable to severe impairment in mental and physical abilities, or Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
Football linked to brain damage
This new study arrives at the same time that researchers from Boston University released findings that link playing football to a higher risk of developing progressive brain damage.
Researchers from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) said Tuesday that NFL veteran Tom McHale was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he died last year at the age of 45.
McHale, formerly a Tampa Bay Buccaneer who played nine years in the NFL, is the sixth former player to be diagnosed with CTE post-mortem since 2002.
CTE, a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, leads to a build-up of a toxic protein called "tau" throughout the brain. The protein initially impairs normal brain function before eventually killing brain cells.
Patients with CTE start out suffering from memory loss, erratic behaviour, emotional difficulties and poor impulse control, but their symptoms eventually develop into full-blown dementia.
While McHale died of a drug overdose and not from CTE, two of the former players diagnosed with the disease committed suicide and another died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that was ruled an accident, incidents that indicate the devastating toll the disease can have on sufferers.
"Initially referred to as dementia pugilistica because of the boxers that were originally studied, CTE is now being seen in other athletes," Dr. Ann McKee, CSTE co-director and a leading neuropathologist who specializes in degenerative brain diseases, said in a statement. "Although the neuropathological findings of CTE are, in some ways, similar to those we see in Alzheimer's disease, they represent a distinct disease with a distinct cause, namely repetitive head trauma."
In light of the CSTE's ongoing findings, eight former NFL players have agreed to donate their brains to the Boston University School of Medicine for study after their deaths.
According to CSTE co-director Robert Stern, ongoing study of athletes' brains will allow researchers to determine exact risk factors for developing CTE, the "only fully preventable cause of dementia."
Knowing the risk factors will allow sports bodies to develop guidelines aimed at preventing CTE in players at not only the professional level, but those who are playing in youth leagues, as well, Stern said.
The findings are important for youth-league players, the researchers said, because they have also discovered early evidence of CTE in an 18-year-old deceased boy who experienced multiple concussions while playing high school football.