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Head injuries and excess weight a hazardous combo for NFL players
Linebackers and linemen tend to make helmet-to-helmet contact on nearly every play.
January 17th, 2012
10:00 AM ET

Head injuries and excess weight a hazardous combo for NFL players

Professional football players already vulnerable to memory loss and cognitive problems stemming from repetitive head injuries may be at even greater risk if they also carry excess weight, as many of them do.

In a small new study of retired NFL players, researchers found that overweight players had less blood flow to key areas of the brain and lower scores on mental-function tests than former players of normal weight.

"There was a very significant relationship: As their weight went up, their reasoning scores and memory and attention scores went down," says the senior study author, Daniel G. Amen, M.D., founder and medical director of Amen Clinics, a neuropsychiatry clinic and research center based in Newport Beach, California.

The modest cognitive deficits seen in the overweight players could translate into everyday slips in memory, judgment, and impulse control - such as forgetting to buy an item at the store, unwittingly saying something inappropriate, or giving in to unhealthy appetites, Amen says.

Health.com: 7 ways to protect your memory

"The message for all of us is that we need to take our weight seriously, but it's even more important if you have been at a job [that] puts you at risk for brain damage," he says.

Although this warning applies especially to athletes involved in collision and contact sports (such as football, boxing, hockey, or soccer), excess weight may even increase the risk of cognitive problems in people who have suffered one-off head injuries in car accidents or other non-athletic situations, Amen says.

The study findings, which appear in the journal Translational Psychiatry, aren't entirely surprising. Previous studies have found unusually high rates of mental-function problems in former NFL players (especially those with a history of concussions), while a large body of research has linked being overweight or obese to a higher risk of dementia later in life.

Health.com: 25 signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

Amen and his team, in fact, have previously found blood-flow abnormalities in the brains of both retired NFL players and overweight non-athletes.

In the new study, the researchers compared a group of 38 overweight former players to a group of 38 normal-weight individuals. The players were matched by age and football position, to account for the effects of aging and the different risks associated with the various positions.

The researchers didn't use body mass index (BMI) to measure obesity and overweight, since BMI, a simple ratio of height to weight, doesn't differentiate between muscle and fat—a crucial shortcoming when it comes to professional athletes who may be unusually muscular. Instead, the researchers used the ratio of waist circumference to height. (Men whose waist was more than 53% of their height were considered overweight.)

Health.com: Surprising celebrity BMIs

The study participants underwent a type of brain scan known as single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and took a series of computer-based tests designed to gauge real-world cognitive function.

As the authors expected, a higher waist-to-height ratio was associated with less blood flow in certain areas of the brain involved in attention, memory, reasoning, and judgment. Being overweight was likewise associated with lower cognitive-function scores, especially on the reasoning tests.

Overall, linebackers and linemen - who tend to make helmet-to-helmet contact on nearly every play - appeared to have lower blood flow and test scores than men who played other positions during their career.

Over time, the combination of excess weight and repetitive head trauma can lead to an increased risk of stroke and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as "boxer's dementia." The good news, Amen says, is that people can lower their risk by losing weight, getting enough sleep, avoiding stress, eating right, and continuing to exercise.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011


soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    Actually, the so called overweight football players are your down linemen...your defensive and offensive center, guards, and tackles who need body mass to avoid being pushed aside or manhandled during the play. They don't get much momentum when hitting or blocking an opposing player and

    January 17, 2012 at 13:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • portland tony

      And....the point being those big linemen don't really get hit as hard or with full momentum , helmet to helmet, as do those muscular linebackers who usually are running at full speed when they impact an offensive player. So why
      should they all suffer from the
      same rate of trauma?

      January 17, 2012 at 20:36 | Report abuse |
  2. nolberto conde

    Saludo soy fisioterapeuta quiero

    January 17, 2012 at 16:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. nolberto conde

    Toda información de terapia en lesiones de

    January 17, 2012 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. David Crandall

    Getting injured is a consequence of playing football but as long as the players are doing what they love they are willing to get hurt or die for it. Actually it should be illegal because intentionally hitting or tackling someone else fits the definaition of 'assault'.

    January 17, 2012 at 17:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • George

      Good point.

      January 17, 2012 at 21:51 | Report abuse |
    • JImmie

      not really they just do it for the fame thats all i should know i play football n the only thing "i love to is hit linebackers" that my job n i will b illegal cause u can kill and hurt someone football is all bout playing a game u love make friends n c who is better u or ur opponent n when is all ova u make up n b friends

      February 27, 2013 at 18:09 | Report abuse |

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.