Repeated hits to the head may not doom NFL players to suffer movement disorders after they retire, new research suggests.
“We found that while the motor functions of former NFL players were not as good as other men their age, they were still within normal range and not related to repeated head injury,” said study author Dr. Samuel Frank, of Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Repeated head injuries have been linked to a devastating brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the researchers noted in a news release from the American Academy of Neurology.
Numerous NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE after their deaths. Performing an autopsy is the only way to definitively diagnose the condition.
In January, a $1 billion concussion lawsuit settlement for former NFL players was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, despite legal challenges from some retired players.
CTE disrupts mood, behavior and thinking, and previous research has suggested that former boxers have suffered both CTE and movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease later in life.
For the new study, researchers wanted to know if former NFL players might meet the same fate after repeated hits to the head during their careers.
Frank’s team compared 95 former NFL players — all aged 40 to 69 — to 25 men who hadn’t suffered head injuries or played football or similar sports.
The former players performed within normal ranges on tests of writing, speaking, eating, balance and dexterity, although the former football players did worse than their counterparts.
“Our findings could signify that head trauma in football may have less impact on regions of the brain that control motor function than head trauma in boxing,” Frank said in the news release.
“This research adds to what we already know about repeated head injuries and how they affect athletes. Larger studies are now needed to further test this hypothesis,” he concluded.
The study is scheduled to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Boston, in April. Medical studies presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Brain Research Injury Institute has details on chronic traumatic encephalopathy.