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Study of former college football players finds increased risk of brain disorders

The BU study focused on former Notre Dame players from 1964-80.

A new study of the later-life brain disorders of college football players revealed increased risks of degenerative brain diseases consistent with studies that have focused on stricken former NFL players, according to researchers at the Boston University CTE Center in a study published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.

Seniors from the 1964-80 Notre Dame football rosters were five times more likely to report cognitive impairment diagnoses, 2 1/2 times more likely to report recurrent headaches, and 65 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disorders, compared with a representative general-population sample of men of the same age.

And while mortality rates due to degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis were higher than in the general population, the differences did not reach statistical significance, the authors said.

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Still, mortality from brain and nervous system cancers was nearly four times higher in the college players than in the general population.

And considering that there are far more ex-college football players — 800,000-plus, with more than a quarter-million over age 60 — than current or former NFL players, the findings are concerning, said Robert Stern, director of clinical research at the BU CTE Center.

“There’s a whole lot of former college football players out there,” said Stern, a corresponding author of the report. “And the growing amount of research evidence indicates that exposure to the repetitive head impacts from playing American football do seem to lead to an increased risk for a variety of brain disorders.

“It’s not just an issue that we have to be concerned about in former NFL players, it’s something that we have to consider as a society, that all of those brain injuries that college football players have gotten may be increasing their risk for a variety of brain disorders and diseases. And we need to consider what the cost/benefit ratio is.”

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The study also found an overall lower mortality rate and lower prevalence of diabetes compared with the general population, with death rates from heart, circulatory, respiratory, and digestive system disorders, as well as lung cancer and violence, much lower among former college football players.

“Yes indeed, many of the former players live long, completely healthy lives and benefit from their fitness and early athleticism,” Stern said. “But many also seem to be at increased risk for pretty significant changes to their thinking and memory, their ability to function independently, as well as having a variety of neurodegenerative diseases.”

The authors used an epidemiological study of health surveys of 216 of the 375 former Notre Dame players still living, as well as mortality rates from 477 players who played in that 17-year span.

While cautioning that “people should not overreact” to the study and that there’s a need for more studies of former college players, Stern said, in the meantime, awareness can be raised among ex-football players about steps to improve brain health and resilience.

Those include getting checked by a health care provider for any changes in memory, moods, or thinking; reducing vascular risk factors such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure; lifestyle changes such as aerobic exercise and a Mediterranean diet; being socially active and engaging in intellectual and cognitive stimulation; and getting enough sleep.

The study was initiated by an e-mail Stern received four years ago from a close-knit group of former Notre Dame players who were interested in having neurological and health research done. Among them were former NFL players Rocky Bleier, Dave Casper, and Luther Bradley Jr.

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According to Stern, the players noticed that many of their former teammates “were having a lot of problems and possibly dying earlier, and they started to be concerned and shared their stories among themselves, realizing they all had that same perception and wanted to come up with a study.

“I realized this could be a really important group to examine, in part because all the former players would be age 59 to 75 at the time at the study, which is an age range very appropriate for studying the prevalence of age-related diseases and disorders.

“Also, former players from that, from the earlier seasons, from that cohort represent the oldest era living football players who likely played their entire football career, including high school, wearing hard plastic helmets and face masks.

“Additionally, there were only two coaches [Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine] at Notre Dame during those 17 years, meaning that it was a relatively homogenous style of play and practice and related factors.”

The Notre Dame players are among the group to be tracked longitudinally in the BU CTE Center’s new National Institutes of Health-funded study, Head Impact & Trauma Surveillance Study.

The center is currently recruiting 4,800 former soccer and football players, age 40 and older, who played at any level — youth, high school, college, or professional — for an annual assessment exploring the risks of developing later-life brain health issues from repetitive head impacts.

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Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.