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96 Percent of Deceased NFL Players had Degenerative Brain Disease

Update Date: Oct 01, 2014 12:04 PM EDT
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Football is a high-contact sport that involves a lot of collisions and tackles. Even though the athletes wear protective gear and helmets, several studies have found that repeated hits to the head can cause long-term mental health issues.

In a new study, researchers examined the brain of deceased players from the National Football League (NFL) and discovered that 96 percent of them had brains that showed signs of degenerative disease.

For this study, the researchers analyzed brains from the country's largest brain bank, the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) brain repository in Massachusetts, which the VA collaborated on with Boston University's CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) Center. CTE is a brain condition that leads to dementia as well as other cognitive issues.

Out of the 79 brains examined, the team with the brain bank found that 76 of them, or 96 percent, had signs of a degenerative disease. They also reported that the prevalence rate of CTE calculated this time around was two times greater than the previous rate. The rate for this brain disease is at 80 percent.

"Obviously this high percentage of living individuals is not suffering from CTE," Dr. Ann McKee, the brain bank's director, told PBS. "Playing football, and the higher the level you play football and the longer you play football, the higher your risk."

CTE develops when the brain produces abnormal proteins known as tau. The production can be triggered by repetitive head trauma, which could be linked to the rough play in football. Tau disrupts brain functioning and kills nerve cells by forming tangles around the blood vessels. Symptoms of a milder version of CTE mainly include mood disorders. A more severe case of CTE would be characterized by confusion, memory loss and advanced dementia.

All of the brains that the center has examined were donated after death by football players who played professionally, semi-professionally, in college or in high school. Some of the players already had signs of CTE before they passed away.

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