Football is linked to dementia, and why it should be banned from high schools

by Brian E. Moore, MD

Two neuropathologists are prominently spotlighted in an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the October 19 issue of The New Yorker. The article explores a provocative question raised by autopsy results on football players: namely, should football be illegal?

Featured are Dr. Ann McKee, neuropathologist at the Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts and Dr. Bennet Omalu, forensic neuropathologist and San Joaquin Valley (CA) chief medical examiner. Drs. McKee and Omalu have done some interesting autopsy work which suggests that chronic traumatic brain injury leading to dementia suffered by football players is much more common, even among high school players, than previously realized.

What’s alarming is the presence of abnormal collections of a protein known as tau, one of the proteins one sees in cases of Alzheimer disease, in brains of young ex-football players. As an example, McKee provides photomicrographs from a case of an 18-year-old high school football player and says: “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular…. This is completely inappropriate. You don’t see tau like this in an 18-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty year old.”

You might counter that this is simply the result of a few bad-luck hits on the field, but research involving the University of North Carolina football team suggests otherwise. Players at UNC wear impact sensors in their helmets throughout the season. Results from these investigations suggests that even routine hits during practice can add up to cause concussions and, theoretically, set the stage for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (On the first day of training camp one UNC lineman was recorded as having been hit in the head thirty-one times!)

Back in 1905, Gladwell reports, the question of whether football should be played in our nation’s schools was raised to the level of the White House, when President Theodore Roosevelt called an emergency summit to discuss the issue. At the time, a professor at the University of Chicago called football a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” And in December of 1905, presidents of twelve prominent colleges met in New York and came within one vote of abolishing the sport at their institutions.

What does this mean for football in America? Nothing. Fans are willing to spend a lot of money to see men slam into each other’s heads on the field. But, as a parent, you can do something.

You can forbid your son from playing football.

Brian E. Moore is a neuropathologist with Pathology Associates of Central Illinois and assistant professor of pathology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine who blogs at neuropathology blog.

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