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Study finds not all contact sport pro athletes at higher risk of CTE

by Thomas Dworetzky , Contributing Reporter
Contact sports like football and hockey might not bump up the rate of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in all athletes, say new findings from New University at Buffalo's Healthy Aging Mind Project.

"The results underscore an apparent disconnect between public perceptions and evidence-based conclusions about the inevitability of CTE and the potential neurodegenerative effect on former athletes from contact sports," according to an overview paper authored by Barry Willer, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, and Dr. John Leddy, medical director of the University at Buffalo Concussion Management Clinic and clinical professor of orthopaedics, both of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

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The research, published in four papers in the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, looked at the the cognitive and behavioral status of retired professional athletes who played with the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres and “did not find evidence of early onset dementia in the retired players, which would be expected with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),” according to a UB report.

The case-controlled study is said to be “the first age-matched athlete comparison” that has looked at for early onset dementia in retired living athletes in this fashion.

“We don’t deny that CTE exists in some former athletes,” said Willer, adding that “it has been linked to contact sports and concussions that happen while playing those sports, but it’s not a sure thing.

“The larger question is, how prevalent is the problem?”

Present research, said the team, would suggest that many contact sports participants would wind up with a “high probability” for CTE.

There are “myriad of other possible explanations for cognitive decline, such as mental health, lifestyle, eating habits, drug and alcohol abuse and so on,” noted Willer.

While the UB studies did show more mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in the contact athletes versus non-contact controls, the rate was in keeping with other MCI-linked factors, such as age, education level and body mass index, and was also not statistically significant.

“We looked at 21 former professional football and hockey players with an average age of 56,” said Leddy, adding that, “not one qualified as having early onset dementia.”

Importantly, beyond behavioral assessments, there was no significant difference on brain scans between the groups.

“We went into this study with the expectation that we’d find any number of former athletes with dementia,” said Leddy. “And while some of the former professional athletes reported concerns that they felt they were experiencing a decline in memory, and other cognitive issues, the study results did not bear this out.”
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