American footballers at high risk for neurodegenerative death

By Helen Albert, Senior medwireNews Reporter

Professional American Football players are significantly more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease than the general public, say US researchers.

Everett Lehman (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Cincinnati, Ohio) and colleagues found that while the overall mortality of 3439 National Football League players was 47% lower than the general public over the 20-48-year follow-up period (at least five pension-credited playing sessions), they had a threefold higher neurodegenerative mortality rate.

When specific neurologic conditions were considered, the players seemed to be at greatest risk for death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and were a significant 4.3 times more likely to die from this condition than the general US population. Similarly, the players were a significant 3.9 times more likely to die from Alzheimer's disease.

The team also assessed mortality from Parkinson's disease and found it was elevated in players versus the general public, but not to a statistically significant level.

Further analysis revealed that players who held speed positions were 3.3 times more likely to die from neurodegenerative causes than nonspeed players, although this did not quite reach statistical significance.

Writing in Neurology, the authors explain that the higher neurodegenerative mortality rate among American Football players is likely to be at least partially due to their increased risk for head injury compared with the general population.

"Although the results of our study do not establish a cause-effect relationship between football-related concussion and death from neurodegenerative disorders, they do provide additional support for the finding that professional football players are at an increased risk of death from neurodegenerative causes," write Lehman and co-investigators.

"Additional studies to quantify the cumulative effects of brain injuries, in particular the relative effects of concussive-level injuries, will be of particular importance in understanding the underlying disease mechanisms," they conclude.

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