Information released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows professional football players may be at higher risk of death from diseases that affect the brain.
The study comes the same day as the kick-off to the NFL season, and on the heels of a months-long investigation by CBS Atlanta's Jennifer Mayerle.
We went inside the world of football and learned what the long-lasting impact of concussions and repetitive hits to the head can do to a player, and not just in the pros.
It's no secret football is a contact sport, full of hard hits and tough tackles. Come fall, players young and older put their bodies on the line. Experts find that players' heads take the brunt of the blows.
"You feel like you've opened this sort of box and it doesn't seem to have any limit. You seem to just keep finding things out," neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee said.
McKee heads up the NFL Brain Bank at the VA Medical Center in Bedford, MA. She found concussions - and those repeated blows to the head - can result in a debilitating degenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.
"As the player ages, even if he doesn't have any more hits to the head, the disease in some people becomes very progressive and starts really taking over most of the brain. At that point the individual usually has memory loss, is very impaired in terms of thinking and often has a lot of behavioral and personality changes," McKee said.
The symptoms can resemble other recognized diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS. The CDC conducted a study of 3,439 football players. Those players, with an average age of 57, were in the league for at least five seasons. About 10 percent of those studied are no longer living.
Researchers found pros were three times as likely to die compared to the general public as a result of diseases that damage the brain. The risk of dying from Alzheimer's and ALS was four times as likely. And those in a speed position like running backs, wide receivers, safeties and linebackers are at higher risk than non-speed positions.
The study's author, Everett J. Lehman, M.S., with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, agreed the symptoms of these diseases are similar to CTE and said, "Although our study looked at causes of death from Alzheimer's disease and ALS as shown on death certificates, research now suggests that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) may have been the true primary or secondary factor in some of these deaths. A brain autopsy is necessary to diagnose CTE and distinguish it from Alzheimer's or ALS. While CTE is a separate diagnosis, the symptoms are often similar to those found in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS, and can occur as the result of multiple concussions."
Also on Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the NFL will give $30 million to medical research. Some of the grant is earmarked for research of the brain, including CTE, concussion management and treatment and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's.
See the full report, Athletes at Risk, tonight at 7 p.m.
Copyright 2012 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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