After Review, Ruling Linking Football to CTE Stands

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On Tuesday, July 25, 2017, Dr. Ann McKee published the continuation of a study that began eight years ago, where McKee and fellow researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University published study results revealing that 87 of 91 former NFL players had CTE. The most recent update to that study, which was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 177 of 202, or nearly 88 percent, of deceased football players had CTE. Of those brains tested, 110 of 111 former NFL players had CTE, 48 of 53 college players, 9 of 14 semi-professional players, 7 of 8 Canadian Football League players, and 3 of 14 high school players. CTE was not found in the brains of two younger players who played football before high school.

The update is the largest yet that has been conducted on CTE, a brain disease that has been linked with repeated head blows. Skeptics are quick to point out that the report does not confirm that the condition is common in all football players, and that it only reflects a high occurrence in samples at a Boston brain bank that studies CTE. Many of the donors and families contributed because of the players’ repeated concussions and troubling symptoms before death. It is also uncertain if some player’s lifestyle habits – alcohol, drugs, steroids, diet – might somehow contribute to the condition.

The scientists also compared the diagnosis to the information that they received from the families. Among the brains donated that had severe CTE, 85 percent had signs of dementia, almost 90 percent had behavioral symptoms, and 95 percent had cognitive symptoms. In total, brain injury of some sort was found in 99 percent of the brains tested.

Although the study creates a strong link between football and CTE, Dr. McKee was quick to point out that there are many questions left unanswered. McKee stated these questions include “How common is this?” in both the general population and all football players. Also, “how many years of football are too many? What is the genetic risk? Some players do not have evidence of this disease despite long playing years.”

The NFL has issued a response to the report saying that the league “will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes.”

One thing that McKee is certain of is that there has to be additional studies and more money for research on CTE. McKee stated these studies need to “look[] at young individuals playing these sports. We need to follow them for decades. We need to take measurements throughout their lives and playing careers so we can begin to detect when things start to go wrong.” McKee believes that researchers need approximately $100 million to conduct the necessary research.

Although McKee has submitted applications for funding into next year, she is not sure if they will be granted. McKee stated “The NFL directs funding only to research they approve of.” The NFL has funded a portion of her past research, but McKee believes there will be “no continued NFL support” because “the results are considered too damaging.”

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