Should tackle football continue to be played in its current form? A study with horrifying results that was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association raises that question once again.
The study examined 202 brains of people who had formerly played football for varying lengths of time and at varying levels (some who only played pre-high school, some at high school, college level, semi-professional, or Canadian football league). They found the highest percentage of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among former NFL players (110 out of 111 brains). However, the overall incidence of CTE was 87% when looking at all 202 brains.
They also found that the 3 out of 14 former high school players had mild CTE, but the majority of former college, semiprofessional, and professional players had severe CTE.
The one thing to keep in mind is that the study only examined donated brains of former football players - which means that the family members were concerned about CTE in the former player (perhaps there were symptoms suggestive of CTE). So we don't know the actual percentage of CTE in currently playing and former football players. But studies (here. here, and here) do show damage from hits received during football games and practice at even the grammar and high school level - and the damage can be from subconcussive hits.
But note that concussions and subconcussive hits (head trauma) also occur in other sports, such as soccer. Everyone agrees we need more studies, and we also need to rethink how some games are played in childhood to protect developing brains.
As the country starts to get back into its most popular professional team sport, there is a reminder of how dangerous football can be. An updated study published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association on football players and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy reveals a striking result among NFL players.
The study examined the brains of deceased former football players (CTE can only be diagnosed after death) and found that 110 out of 111 brains of those who played in the NFL had CTE. CTE has been linked to repeated blows to the head — the 2015 movie Concussion chronicled the discovery of CTE's connection to football.
In the study, researchers examined the brains of 202 deceased former football players at all levels. Nearly 88 percent of all the brains, 177, had CTE. Three of 14 who had played only in high school had CTE, 48 of 53 college players, 9 of 14 semiprofessional players, and 7 of 8 Canadian Football League players. CTE was not found in the brains of two who played football before high school.
A CTE study several years ago by McKee and her colleagues included football players and athletes from other collision sports such as hockey, soccer and rugby. It also examined the brains of military veterans who had suffered head injuries. The study released Tuesday is the continuation of a study that began eight years ago. In 2015, McKee and fellow researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University published study results revealing 87 of 91 former NFL players had CTE.
McKee is chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at the BU School of Medicine. Speaking about the new numbers, she says it's "startling to be able to gather 177 examples of CTE" in a relatively short period of time (the past eight years). "While we still don't know what the incidence is in the general population or in the general population of football players," she says, "the fact that we were able to gather this many cases [in that time frame] says this disease is much more common than we previously realized."
"We need a very well-constructed longitudinal study," says McKee, "looking at young individuals playing these sports. We need to follow them for decades...." [Original study.]