How Playing Football Affected The Brains of N.F.L Players

Shifting our attention slightly, it’s important that we address the recent findings that were covered by the New York Times. If you’ve never heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), it’s typically associated with boxers and football players.

When individuals suffer from repeated blows to the head, they can develop this traumatic brain condition. Some of the symptoms are rather frightening, and in many cases, they do not surface until years — or even decades after the brain injury occurred.

The only way to reach a definitive diagnosis is to examine a subject’s brain post-death, which is exactly what a neuropathologist did. After examining the brains of 111 N.F.L players, it was apparent that 110 had CTE.

Study Finds — N.F.L Players At Significant Risk of CTE

Recently published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, a key study, led by Dr. Ann KcKee, examined the brains of 202 deceased football player. Of these individuals, 111 had played in the N.F.L, resulting in a startling conclusion.

As mentioned, 99% were found to have this degenerative disease. When suffering from this condition, individuals may experience some or all of the symptoms:

  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Dementia
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Difficulties planning
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Substance abuse

As you can see below, players were affected from every field position. At the time of death, these individuals were as young as 23 and as old as 89 years of age.

Although there’s a shocking correlation between aggressive contact sports and the development of CTE, it’s important to note that there was a significant selection bias. As stated by the lead author, the donated brains came from families who suspected that their former loved one displayed symptoms of this disease.

With that being said, the evidence is hard to ignore in terms of risk. Since this study began studying the brains of former football players, approximately 1,300 former players have passed away. Even if the remaining 1,200 players tested negative for CTE (which is highly unlikely), the prevalence would still be a shocking 9 percent — a value that is likely underreported.

Even at 9 percent, the prevalence is vastly higher than shown in the general population. In addition the N.F.L players studied, the researchers also looked at the brains from semi-professional players, college players, those from the Canadian Football League, and even high school players.

They found that:

  • Overall, of the 202 brains studied, 87 percent were shown to have CTE.
  • High school players were shown to develop mild cases, while college and professional showed more severe effects.
  • Even when cases were mild, cognitive impairment was apparent, in addition to changes in mood and behavior.

The Link Between CTE and Dementia

While switching our attention over to the UK, football is what we refer to as soccer — and it’s become clear that these players are also at risk. When Jeff Astle died at the age of 59, it was found that he actually died of dementia — likely caused by a long career ‘heading’ the soccer ball.

Although many denied the connection, a study, published in Acta Neuropathologica, certainly turned a few heads. From 1980 to 2010, 14 retired soccer players with dementia were followed up until their death. During this time, their career and all concussion data was recorded.

All of these players were known to be skilled headers, playing for an average of 26 years. All of these players developed progressive cognitive impairment, with an average onset of 63.6 years. When studied post-mortem, the examiners confirmed CTE in four cases, in addition to six cases of Alzheimer’s and one case of dementia with Lewy bodies.

It was concluded that among those suffering from CTE, Alzheimer’s disease is a common finding later in life. This is the case with any traumatic brain injury, which affects one’s cognitive abilities. Research has linked these types of injuries with protein abnormalities (tau and beta-amyloid), as well as the genetic risk factor known as APOE-e4.

At this time, however, there isn’t any evidence that a single mild head injury increases your risk of dementia — but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the right steps.

  • Assess the situation. If you suffered from a minor head injury and you’re conscious, with no apparent lacerations, it’s highly unlikely that significant brain damage occurred.
  • If you are drowsy, confused, begin vomiting, or experience short-term memory loss, seek professional assistance immediately.
  • If the injury is minor, address it with a cold compress and continue to monitor symptoms. Ensure that someone is with you to check on you and ensure you remain conscious.
  • If you are over the age of 60 or have been consuming alcohol, please seek medical assistance.

To protect yourself against Alzheimer’s, be proactive! Stay up-to-date with our blog, as we’ll be posting the latest dementia research — including plenty of preventative tips!


Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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