With the last snap taken until summer, fans won’t have a taste of football before April’s NFL Draft when the latest generation of college talent vies to go pro. Continuing tough, economic times have fueled fans’ gridiron passions. This past season, millions watched weekly from the comfort of their homes. And this latest Super Bowl is looking like it will go down as the highest rated event in television history.
America is a football crazed nation, yet the long term affects of what takes place on the field have been mostly overlooked. A few recent studies, though, have begun to bring the discussion to the general public. Interestingly, President Obama said he would look into the workings of the BCS (Bowl Championship Series), which decides the national champion in college football. Should he be more focused on the toll the game takes on the participants, at all levels of play?
In September of 2009, a study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research indicated that former NFL players were 19 times more likely to eventually suffer from dementia. In December of 2009, the NFL acknowledged it would support research from even its biggest critics and admitted for the first time that concussions have long lasting consequences.
Daniel G. Amen, M.D – a brain imaging specialist, child and adult psychiatrist and best selling author – is now conducting a study with retired NFL players. So far 70 have participated. Results have shown that one half of the players are currently overweight or obese and have been limited in their current workout activity because of the physical damage they suffered during their playing days.
What might be most alarming Amen says, is that it’s very common for a retired NFL player, currently in their 50s, to have the brain of someone in their 80s.
So far Amen’s recommendations to help ailing former players include fish oil, nutritional supplements and therapy. The use of these methods has apparently led to improvements in the ex-players cognitive abilities. Some have even cut back on their pain medication, something they rely on to deal with their chronic injuries.
A number of participants in Dr. Amen’s study regret having played football and would’ve done something different with their lives if they’d known the price they would end up paying. Amen states that society has no love for the brain and that football’s biggest supporters are in denial, even after many former players have passed away too young.
Listen to Daniel G. Amen, M.D interview:
Chris Yandek: Tell me about the latest in your study on NFL retired players.
Dr. Amen: “Well, at this point we’ve now done 70 players and what we’re doing is brain imaging and neuropsychological testing to try to answer the question on the impact of playing professional football on brain function and more importantly to us because our assumption is it wouldn’t be good – with can we rehabilitate these brains? That’s the really exciting part of the study for us is to put players on a brain healthy program and see if we can’t improve their performance.”
CY: You’ve seen some improvements in their cognitive ability, am I correct? And some of these players who you’ve prescribed different things to like fish oil, some of them have even lowered their pain medication. What other things have we seen? What other progress have we seen from the treatment that you’ve helped some of these retired players with?
DA: “Well, on a number of them and the follow up scans for us is still fairly earlier, but almost all of them their neuropsychological test, things like memory and attention and sort of cognitive ability has improved with the nutritional supplements, a better diet, fish oil and in order to live a brain healthy life, people have to stop the bad things they’re doing to hurt their brain and that continues even after football whether it’s drinking or eating too much and so on. So we’re taking a behavioral and brain function approach to try to improve them and so far so good.”
CY: Speaking about the health and everything else, refresh my memory, is it true a good amount, number of the players in this study are overweight or are obese?
DA: “Half of them. There have been a few surprises in this study. That certainly was one of them.”
CY: Is it fair to say the reason some of these players might be overweight or in some cases obese is because they have been limited in the physical activity they can now do because of the physical damage that was created to their body while they were playing football?
DA: “Yes. A number of our players say because their pain or their surgeries it is very hard for them to work out.”
CY: What are the physical causes that you’ve seen from these 70 or so retired NFL players besides the damage to their brain? What are the most common physical traits from these guys that come and see you?
DA: “They have back pain. They have knee pains. I think those are the two most common that we hear.”
CY: You gave one story in particular about Anthony Davis who played football for eight years and you talked about how he had the brain, he’s in his 50s and he had the brain of someone who looked like he was an 80 year old. How common is this among retired players for someone to have a brain that looks 30 years older than they are and what long term affects of this?
DA: “It’s very common actually among our players. Certainly not all of them, but a high percentage of them have brains that look older than they are. It puts them at greater risk of developing mood problems and memory problems.”
CY: With all the work you’ve done with all these retired players, do you see a lot of regret among these guys, maybe even some of them wished they never played football because it’s probably, maybe in some ways limited their lives?
DA: “We’ve certainly seen that in some of them. Many of them actually get their identity from the time they played in the NFL. So it’s certainly not true with all of them, but a number of them have expressed if they would’ve known what it would do to them that they would’ve done something else.”
CY: As a parent, knowing everything you know, would you do everything you could to make sure your child or someone else’s child, would you advise them not to play a physical contact sport like football given the long term affects that this is something they want to do with their life? What are the red flags? What is the advice? I mean are there any ways to prevent the possibilities of brain damage and physical damage or anything else?
DA: “Well, what you allow your kids to do will have a huge impact on how they live the rest of their life. For me, I wouldn’t let my children play tackle football and I wouldn’t let them box and I wouldn’t let them do ultimate fighting and I wouldn’t let them snowboard without a helmet. I think we have no love for the brain in our society.
That’s just clearly evident by how we cheer at ultimate fighting matches or when someone has a really bad hit on the football field. We have to be much more careful and thoughtful given that we know that the brain controls everything you do, how you think, how you feel, how you act and the brain is really soft and the skull is really hard. Cheering at events where people get knocked out just seems a little barbaric if you will.
Now if your child really, really, really wanted to play and was gonna get very depressed if you didn’t let him play, one of the things I recommend is screen them for a certain gene. The gene is called the apolipoprotein e4 gene. People who have that gene plus a head injury have a significantly higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a blood test that people can do and if you have the e4 gene, you absolutely shouldn’t play because there’s estimates that for every year you play, people will have a concussion and so you just have to be thoughtful and careful.”
CY: Can there ever be a resolution to this problem regarding the long term effects of playing football besides for these players not just to play at all or anyone just not to play at all? Is there no resolution? You’ve come up with treatments and therapies to help these guys improve their cognitive abilities, but going before that and going all the way back, is the only way to prevent this by not playing at all?
DA: “You know when I first started this study and meeting people like Anthony Davis and Big Ed White, I realized that people are not going to stop playing football. So my thinking has shifted to thinking of our players sort of like our firefighters. We know if you’re a fireman it’s a dangerous job. We know it. We own it. And if you get hurt on the job we will take care of you. I think if we think of it that way and we stop this culture of denial, which I think many people associated with football have been in. It’s sort of like deny until they’re dead and then it’s not our problem.
But we admit that yes this is a brain damaging sport and because of that, we are going to institute brain healthy practices and the NFL is moving closer in that direction. During Monday Night Football this week, I saw the CDC actually came out with the new NFL guidelines. If you have a concussion, you’re not going to play. You’re gonna get an independent person to evaluate you and you’re not gonna be pressured into coming back early. So now the dialogue is really ramping up and I would also like them to feed these athletes appropriately, educate them on brain health and get them on these restorative treatments much earlier.”
You can find out more about Dr. Amen at www.amenclinics.com