Retired NFL player Dave Duerson had endured so much pain that he killed himself–but he did it in such a way that he could will his brain to medical science so it could be studied in order to find out more about the damage that repeated concussions do to the human brain.
Retired NFL football players are at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment, which lead to Alzheimer’s disease. This is caused by concussions, and some people seem more genetically predisposed to getting them. A survey of 513 retired players found that 35% of them had scores suggesting possible mild cognitive impairment, even though their average age was 61. Neuropsychologist Christopher Randolph says, "It appears there may be a very high rate of cognitive impairment in these retired football players, compared to the general population in that age range."
People with MCI have problems with memory, language or another mental function. Such problems are noticeable to themselves or others, and show up on tests, but are not severe enough to interfere with daily living. People who have MCI are at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease over the next few years.
After Duerson retired from football, he began to notice lapses in memory, mood swings, piercing headaches on the left side of his head, a difficulty spelling simple words, and blurred eyesight, all of which led to the collapse of his business, the breakup of his marriage, and an accumulation of debts. In the Guardian Weekly, Ed Pilkington writes: "On 17 February 2011, aged 50, Duerson killed himself inside his Florida apartment. He did so in a manner that was in keeping with his unimpaired earlier self–meticulously, neatly, and with a thought to others. He had placed his NFL Man of the Year trophy, awarded in 1987, on a table beside the spot at which he fell, along with several notes setting out his financial and other arrangements. One of the notes carried a request that he repeated in a text message earlier that day to his ex-wife, Alicia. ‘Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,’ he said."
400 athletes in sports that can lead to concussions have also promised to donate their brains when they die. These include boxer Micky Ward and NFL players Matt Birk (of the Baltimore Ravens), Lofa Tatupu (of the Seattle Seahawks) and Sean Morey (of the Arizona Cardinals). Pilkington interviews neuropathologist Ann McKee as she demonstrates when these sports can do to a brain. She shows him the brain of another NFL player, whom she won’t name but says "was a very skilled NFL player, very well know," and points out that it looks like the brain of an elderly, diseased man with Alzheimer’s, even though the person was middle-aged when he died.
He quotes McKee as saying, "It’s too small for an adult male’s brain. There’s shrinkage pretty much throughout the brain." She finds three large holes in the brain, and says, "This is a brain at the end-stage of disease. I would assume that with this amount of damage the person was very cognitively impaired. I would assume they were demented, had substantial problems with their speech and gait, that this person (had Parkinson’s Disease), was slow to speak and walk, if he could walk at all."
Pilkington writes, "Without being melodramatic about it, I say, you are holding in your hands an example of the price that is paid for being a professional footballer at the top of his game. She hesitates a second. ‘At least in this case, yes,’ she says."
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