Athletes' Dementia: New Name For an Old Disease

Decades ago, everyone knew that boxers had brain problems from taking too many hits to the head. The average person called it being punch drunk. Doctors called it dementia pugilistica, or dementia of fighters. Now, we understand that permanent brain injury can happen to anyone who takes a lot of hits to the head–people such as football, hockey, soccer, and rugby players. In fact, the problem has gotten so big that a new term has been coined: Athletes’ Dementia.

The medical term for Athletes’ Dementia is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

According to a Johns Hopkins Health Alert, the earliest symptoms of CTE are memory problems, disorientation and difficulty concentrating.

As chronic traumatic encephalopathy progresses, people begin to show poor judgment, erratic behavior, significant memory loss and some degree of Parkinson’s disease (impaired speech, difficulty with motor skills, slow movement and a loss of balance). In more advanced stages of CTE, patients experience tremors, full-blown Parkinsonism, a staggering gait, deafness and dementia.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is also commonly associated with psychological problems like depression, agitation, aggression and violence, loss of inhibitions, sexual compulsiveness, euphoria, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

Most of the time, the worst symptoms don’t appear until after the athlete has retired from professional play, and a 2009 study showed that the average lifespan of people with CTE is 51. Disturbingly young.

In February, we wrote about former football great Dave Duerson, who committed suicide. by shooting himself in the chest, not the head. That’s because Duerson’s final wish, expressed in his suicide note and in a voicemail message to his ex-wife, was that his brain would be given to the National Football League’s (NFL) brain bank.

The “brain bank” is the nickname of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE). The CSTE was created in 2008 as a collaborative venture between Boston University School of Medicine and Sports Legacy Institute (SLI). Its is to conduct state-of-the-art research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Duerson shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be donated intact. (To read the full blog, click here:  Football Player Donates Brain to Research)

With a new name that is easier for the public to remember (and pronounce), Athletes’ Dementia will open the dialog about the long-term effects of sports on the brain–effects that previously had been underestimated. No doubt we’ll be hearing about dementia symptoms in players from a variety of sports. Let’s hope we hear about some real solutions and preventions before there are “brain banks” for all hard-hitting sports.

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