FRIDAY, Aug. 9 (HealthDay News) -- The dispute over whether
playing football raises the risk of developing a degenerative brain
disorder has surfaced again with reports on the death of a former
Michigan college quarterback and findings from a study involving
500 former NFL players.
A just-released autopsy revealed that Cullen Finnerty, 30, who
played for Grand Valley State, died of pneumonia, complicated by
the brain disorder known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),
Michigan's Lake County Sheriff's Office said Thursday, according to
a report in
USA Today. Finnerty's body was found May 28 in Lake County
two days after he went missing from a solo fishing trip, according
to news reports.
The progressive condition -- characterized by impulsivity,
depression and erratic behavior -- has been reported in athletes
who were subjected to repetitive trauma of the brain, including
But a new study involving interviews with former National
Football League players challenges the widely held belief that
retired NFL players are at risk for CTE.
Researchers from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood,
Ill., say they found no evidence to support the theory after
interviewing more than 500 retired football players over age 50 who
played in the NFL for an average of 7.5 years. Their research was
published online July 31 in the
Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
"We still do not know if NFL players have an increased risk of late-life neurodegenerative disorders," said researcher Christopher Randolph. "If there is a risk, it probably is not a great risk. And there is essentially no evidence to support the existence of any unique clinical disorder such as CTE."
Based on their interviews, the researchers said 35 percent of
the pro-ball players showed signs of mental decline (cognitive
impairment). The researchers then compared 41 players with probable
mild mental impairment to a group of non-athletes with similar
impairment and a group of healthy people.
The mentally impaired retired NFL players had obvious signs of
mental decline when compared to the healthy people, the researchers
said, but the patterns of their mental impairments were virtually
identical to those in non-athletes with mild cognitive
"The retired NFL players basically look like regular patients who have mild cognitive impairment and have never played football," Randolph said in a Loyola news release.
The rate of possible mental decline in the NFL retirees was
higher than the researchers expected, Randolph added. But, he said,
"it is important to note that we did not have any controls in that
part of the study, so we still do not know whether or not NFL
players actually have a higher risk of later-life cognitive
impairments than men in the general population."
Experts point out that the only way to diagnose CTE is by
In Finnerty's case, a statement from Grand Valley College
confirmed that he had suffered one concussion as a college player,
but the brain injury was determined to be mild. "He was removed
from the game shortly after halftime and did not play again that
day. He was thoroughly checked by doctors and was later cleared for
play in a subsequent game," the college said, according to
The Grand Rapids Press.
After leaving Grand Valley, Finnerty joined the Ravens and then
the Broncos but never played in any NFL games.
Finnerty, at the time of his death, had been taking painkillers
prescribed for a back injury, according to news reports, and the
medical examiner's report said these also probably played a part in
It's believed Finnerty became incapacitated, and then inhaled
vomit, which resulted in pneumonia. The medical examiner said he
probably became disoriented, anxious and paranoid from being on his
own in the woods while waiting for his family to pick him up,
The possible link between football-related head injuries and CTE
arose again last year after NFL star linebacker Junior Seau killed
himself. Experts suspect -- but can't prove -- that CTE may have
led Seau to suicide.
After his death, the U.S. National Institutes of Health examined
his brain tissue and concluded that the cellular changes that were
seen were similar to those found in autopsies of people "with
exposure to repetitive head injuries."
CTE was first noticed in boxers who suffered blows to the head
over many years. More recently, football players have become the
focus of study.
In recent years, concerns about CTE have led high school and
college programs to restrict hits to the head, and the NFL
prohibits helmet-to-helmet hits.
About 4,000 former NFL players filed a class-action lawsuit last
year claiming the league failed to protect players from traumatic
brain injuries or warn them about the dangers of concussions. The
NFL has said that it never intentionally hid the dangers of
concussion from players, and that it is now doing what it can to
protect players against concussions. The league has given a $30
million research grant to the U.S. National Institutes of Health
for that purpose.
Last December, Boston University School of Medicine researchers
reported in the journal
Brainthat people with CTE experience four specific phases,
beginning with memory disruption and thinking problems and ending
The Boston researchers said the condition had been diagnosed in
34 former professional players and nine former college football
The Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic
Encephalopathy has more about
chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
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