Much as we’d hate to lose two of our favorite sports–football and hockey–they are causing head injuries that lead to early Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention extreme headaches. And in Europe and South America, in what we call soccer (and they call football) is the most popular sport, there are plenty of head injuries too. Will we still lose these sports in the future, or will we figure out a safer way to play them?

Derek Boogaard, one of the stars of the NHL, died in May at age 28 from an overdose of drugs and alcohol. He was probably trying to relieve his headaches–he took eight or more OxyContin pain relievers at a time, chewing them so they would work faster. Two other NHL players had recently committed suicide.

In the December 5th edition of the New York Times, John Branch writes that when Boogaard’s brain was examined during an autopsy, it was discovered that he "had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.

"More than 20 dead former NFL players and many boxers have had CTE diagnosed. It generally hollowed out the final years of their lives into something unrecognizable to loved ones."

Branch quotes his teammate John Scott as saying, "His demeanor, his personality, it just left him. He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of–a blank face." This degenerative disease has been found in the brains of four former NHL players whose brains were examined by Boston University researchers: Bob Probert (who died at age 45), Reggie Fleming (dead at 73) and Rick Martin (dead at 59), but they were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers like Boogaard was.

Meanwhile, soccer is killing its players too: Using advanced imaging techniques and cognitive tests, researchers have shown that repeatedly heading a soccer ball increases the risk for brain injury and cognitive impairment. The findings are especially concerning given that soccer is the world’s most popular sport with popularity growing in the US, especially among children.

Of the 18 million Americans who play soccer, 78% are under the age of 18. Soccer balls are known to travel at speeds as high as 34 miles per hour during recreational play, and more than twice that during professional play.

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