Impaired Cognition, Depression Common in Aging NFL Players

Linked to changes in white matter structure and cerebral blood flow

TUESDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Retired professional football players may be more likely to have cognitive impairments or depression, which are associated with white matter abnormalities and changes in cerebral blood flow, according to a study published online Jan. 7 in JAMA Neurology.

John Hart Jr., M.D., from the University of Texas at Dallas, and colleagues performed neurological and neuropsychological testing on 34 retired National Football League (NFL) players (mean age, 61.8 years). A 26 player subset also underwent detailed neuroimaging, which was compared with neuroimaging in 26 matched healthy controls.

The researchers found that 20 of the 34 retired football players were cognitively normal. Four had a fixed cognitive deficit, eight had depression, eight had mild cognitive impairment, and two had dementia. In comparing neuroimaging data, cognitively impaired and depressed retired players had significant white matter abnormalities, compared with controls. The cognitively impaired players also exhibited differences in regional cerebral blood flow in the left temporal pole, inferior parietal lobule, and superior temporal gyrus -- regions associated with neurocognitive impairments. Participants with cognitive impairment demonstrated the greatest deficits on tests involving naming, word finding, and visual/verbal episodic memory.

"In summary, this comprehensive, multimodal investigation suggests that retired NFL players may be more likely to develop cognitive impairments (problems with memory, naming, and word finding) or depression as they age compared with the general population," Hart and colleagues conclude. "These cognitive impairments correlated with changes in blood flow to specific brain regions (left temporal pole, inferior parietal lobule, and superior temporal gyrus) and with white matter abnormalities."

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