Rethinking Healthcare

Is football's condition terminal?

Posting in Technology

You can't have the sport without the hitting and the heading. The hitting and the heading causes fatal dementia.

The New England Journal of Medicine writes that advanced dementia, whether caused by Alzheimer's Disease or something else, is a terminal illness, and suffering could be reduced if it were treated as such.

Blink author Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, suggests this week the same might be said of football.

(Close-up of a picture taken by Jason Takata for Georgiafansite, which focuses on University of Georgia football.)

Gladwell writes that studies of the brains of dead former football players, conducted in Massachusetts, show an immense amount of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by head trauma that has symptoms similar to Alzheimer's.

What Ann McKee found looking at the brains of former footballers, especially lineman, was an immense amount of tau, the protein characteristic of Alzheimer's, in the frontal lobes, where football happens.

This was not the result of concussion, which football is seeking to deal with, but the repeated blows caused by ordinary play, even practice. This constant trauma can result in a concussion with an ordinary blow to the head, or it can lead to fatal brain degeneration in later life.

Gladwell's premise was comparing football, the sport Michael Vick played, with dogfighting, the violent "sport" he was convicted of backing with his football money. Is there any difference, he asked.

Dogfighting is brutal because death and injury are built-into it. It can't be made safe.

Is football the same way?

American football is not the only culprit here. Association football (soccer), the football the rest of the world plays, can be equally implicated.

The problem with soccer is the ball. We know that many players from 50 years ago died prematurely from heading the leather balls of that time. Balls were then redesigned. They are now made of a softer plastic. But when the University of Glasgow simulated heading old and new balls in 2004, they found little difference in the impact.

It's not a few big concussive hits that cause CTE. It's all those little ones. Just as it's not a wild bender that causes cirrhosis in alcoholics. It's all those little ones. It's the accumulation.

This leaves all kinds of football facing a big problem. You can't have the sport without the hitting and the heading. The hitting and the heading causes fatal dementia.

Is football's condition terminal?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure