As the NFL gets set to start a new season, pro football is entering a new era of vigilance regarding head injuries. No longer do players go right back into the game after suffering a concussion. Head injuries are taken much more seriously than they were in the past. But are the new precautions enough to save players from a future of Alzheimer’s?
UCLA professor Dr. Gary Small, one of the nation’s top authorities on football-related head trauma and author of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, tells Newsmax Health that the problem is repeated injury to players’ heads. They are not protected well enough in football and in other sports, including hockey, boxing, and even soccer.
“We’ve got to take good care of our heads,” he says. “And I think we’re not doing enough right now. And certainly that’s going to change these sports, but I think it will be for the better — certainly for the players and the participants.”
In January, Small and his UCLA colleagues released a study involving brain scans of five retired pro football players that showed they all had a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
“What’s happening is when you shake up your head, when you get a concussion or even have a subconcussive injury from a tackle, it has repercussions down the road, and we could measure these in the living players,” he says.
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While it is hard to predict how many football players will go on to develop Alzheimer’s, Dr. Small says other studies have shown that they do have a higher likelihood of dying from the brain-wasting disease.
“But these players are not only experiencing cognitive losses, they’re having personality changes, mood problems, there have been some very high-profile suicides,” he says. “So there’s a lot more we need to learn about how head injury affects outcomes down the road.”
While the violence of football results in head injuries that are believed to be connected to developing Alzheimer’s, other factors are also likely at work, Small says. All the players in his study had evidence of Alzheimer’s in their brain scans, but one 65-year-old player who had retired from the Philadelphia Eagles did not show any actual symptoms of the disease like the others did.
“So we’ve got to see how much of it has to do with actually hitting your head and how much has to do with genetic factors or other environmental factors.”
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