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New studies show 87 out of 91 deceased professional football players have tested positive for brain disease due to concussions and head trauma, according to the largest research network for data concerning head injuries.
The condition, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was established by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University after researchers named the disease in 2005. The disease is believed to stem from repetitive trauma to the head, and can lead to conditions such as memory loss, depression and dementia, FRONTLINE reports. Furthermore, 96 percent of NFL players that have been examined and 79 percent of all football players have or show developing signs of CTE, according to researchers.
Out of 165 deceased individuals, CTE was identified in the brain tissue of 131. Each one played football, and 40 percent of those men sustained specific positions such as defensive and offensive linemen – roles that come into direct impact with other players.
The CTE percentages are high, but the testing is slightly flawed. Researchers conducted examinations by using brain scans to discover the condition in living subjects, but the disease can be best identified after death.
Despite some of the exceptions, Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare system, says the results are “remarkably consistent.”
She told FRONTLINE:
“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” said McKee, who runs the lab as part of a collaboration between the VA and BU. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”
The NFL has acknowledged the impact the sport has on its players’ health. An NFL spokesman issued a statement:
“We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.”
In 2015, the NFL’s Health & Safety report stated the rate of concussions had fallen from 173 last season to 112 this season. In April, the league reached a $1 billion settlement with over 5,000 players who sued the league for trauma. The NFL has taken measures to revisit and revise safety procedures to cut down on field injuries.
“Convincing people this is an actual disease.” Whatever pockets of resistance still exist, she said, have primarily come from those with a “vested interest” in football.
“People want to make this just Alzheimer’s disease or aging and not really a disease. I think there’s fewer of those people, but that’s still one of our major hurdles.”
In the meantime, Hollywood is gearing up to release Concussion, in which Will Smith stars as neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, the physician credited with discovering CTE.