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NFL, Brain Disease Study Indicates Football Players Face Higher Risk Of Death From Alzheimer's, ALS

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Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Miami Dolphins linebacker Jamaal Westerman (52) during an NFL preseason game on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, in Miami.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by Miami Dolphins linebacker Jamaal Westerman (52) during an NFL preseason game on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, in Miami.

Hours before the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys get the 2012 NFL season underway, a study of former NFL players has revealed just how dangerous it may be to play professional football. According to a study published in the Sept. 5 issue of Neurology, NFL players may face a higher risk of dying from Alzheimer's disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati analyzed 3,439 former NFL players who had spent at least five seasons in the league between 1959 and 1988. These players had an average age of 57. Of those players, 334 of them had died. The researchers analyzed their causes of death, and found that seven had died of Alzheimer's and seven had died of ALS. This is nearly four times higher a rate than that of the general population, researchers found.

According to the American Academy of Neurology, the researchers also analyzed a player's risk of ALS and Alzheimer's based on the position he played. They found that players who were in "speed" positions -- such as quarterbacks, running backs, safeties and linebackers -- had a three times increased risk of having died of ALS or Alzheimer's than those in defensive or offensive linemen positions.

Prominent among the players whose deaths have been linked to brain trauma suffered during their playing careers are safeties Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson. Both men took their own lives. As recently noted by Wired, there has also been speculation that the untimely death of former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, was related to brain trauma. Portions of his brain have reportedly been donated to the National Institutes of Health for evaluation.

On the same day that the results of this study were made public, the NFL announced a substantial grant for medical research. On Wednesday morning, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pledged a $30 million grant to the National Institutes of Health.

"We hope this grant will help accelerate the medical community's pursuit of pioneering research to enhance the health of athletes past, present and future," said Goodell.

The grant will fund research into concussions, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease, according to The Associated Press.

As the lawsuits against the league mount and the tragedies potentially tied to brain trauma continue, the league has made some attempts to address the safety of its players. Following the 2011 season, Dr. Hunt Batjer, co-chair of NFL Head, Neck & Spine Committee touted a specific rule change as having a positive impact. According to the NFL, concussions suffered on kickoffs were reduced by 50% due to a 5-yard change in the starting field position on those plays.

A May 2012 review by The Associated Press of pending concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL, determined that more than 2,000 former players were plaintiffs in those cases.

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