With the National Football League’s preseason in mid swing, it’s time to catch up on all the exciting conversations we’ve missed: the breakout rookies, the dark horse underdogs—and, of course, head injuries.
There is, perhaps, no more relevant topic for a physician taking in America’s new pastime than the league’s ongoing struggle to cope with head injuries. Though the league has instituted new rules based on the medical community’s growing awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), it is clear that the issue is not going away any time soon. Just this January, a medical examiner discovered Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski to have the brain of a “65-year old” after he took his own life. He was 21 years old.
And while most of the focus of head injuries has centered around CTE, an article published this Monday by Medical News Today notes that studies are now linking head injuries to a wide-variety of neurodegenerative diseases. For instance, in January a study was published that suggested a link between head injuries and Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study also links head injuries with Lewy body disease, which is closely related to Parkinson’s disease.
In the most recent study, in which 694 donated brains were examined, researchers studied the differences in the brains of those who had played contact sports for 8 years or more from those who had played for less than 8 years. The findings revealed that the differences in the two groups was significant.
According to the article, the studied determined that “people who participated in contact sports for over 8 years had the greatest risk of developing Lewy body disease — six times higher, in fact, than the increase in risk seen in people who had played contact sports for 8 years or under.”
A six-fold increase is quite a big difference, and it remains to be seen how (or if) the NFL might react to such news. Just this year, soon after Hilinski’s tragic suicide, and after a season in which Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a potentially life-altering head injury on the field, the NFL announced that it was going to adopt a new “targeting” rule to reduce the instances of helmet-to-helmet contact. The rule is similar to ones that have been instituted in the past, but with a key difference: if a defensive player targets with the helmet, he may be ejected.
Hopefully, this will cause positive change. However, as the USA Today notes, instances of head-to-head contact in the NFL was actually up by 14% since 2015, despite the NFL agreeing to new rules in that timeframe.
In any case, this promises to be another season of interesting debate around the future of America’s favorite game. Will the NFL’s new rule help protect the players that make the game so exciting? We’ll find out soon.