Athlete's brain is a terrible thing to waste

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The July 12 edition of the Union-Bulletin had two articles dealing with the human brain. One, a column by Theresa Osborne with the Walla Walla YMCA, gave great advice on how to protect your brain. A second article discussed the frequency of concussions among teenagers. It reported that 1 in 5 adolescents has probably suffered a concussion.

Both items reminded me of an article in the Dec. 18, 2012, Reader’s Digest written by a sports writer Patrick Hubry, with the title “Football Safety: Why I broke up with the Sport.”

He described in considerable detail what has happened to professional football players. Many of them have developed the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a serious brain disease can develop as a result of one head banging against other heads.

Medical research has noted that repeated concussions and injuries less severe than concussions suffered during contact sports played over a long period of time can result in CTE. The two biggest culprits are boxing and football, but other sports such as hockey can also cause it.

The first scientific journal to report CTE problems in National Football League players was Neurosurgery in 2005. The same journal in 2006 reported a second NFL player had been identified with it. That player had started playing organized football at age 18 and played for 14 years. After leaving the game he attempted suicide multiple times and was finally successful 12 years after his retirement.

In a report in the January edition of the medical journal Brain, the brains of 85 people with histories of mild traumatic injury were examined. CTE was found in 68 of them in ages ranging from 17 to 98, including 64 athletes. Data on athletic exposure were available for 34 American football players

Dr. Ann McKee, a prominent neuropathologist in the Boston area, also has great concerns about the effects of repetitive head trauma. Anyone wanting to look her up on YouTube can hear her say that “any repetitive head trauma can cause CTE.”

People with CTE can have serious changes in their personalities that can wreak havoc in their personal lives and among their families and relationship and jobs. Some prominent players besides the one mentioned above have committed suicide because of their problems.

At the time Hubry wrote his article, 3,500 former NFL players and surviving family members were suing the NFL.

Hubry mentioned he would no longer watch football. He said he had come to feel that watching people ruin themselves for entertainments sake was not just morbid, it was ghoulish.

He described how Linda Sanchez, a California congresswoman and member of the House Judiciary Committee, during a 2009 hearing dealing with head injuries in football, likened the NFL to the tobacco industry. For many years Big Tobacco claimed cigarettes were harmless. Sanchez said she felt the NFL was doing the same thing when it came to the question as to whether multiple head injuries played a role in dementia, depression or early-onset Alzheimer’s.

According to Hubry, researchers at Boston University estimate the average high school lineman takes 1,000 to 1,500 hits to the head each year he plays. Some of those hits are at forces the same as or greater than a 25 mph car crash.

His Reader’s Digest article describes a tragic case of a couple whose son suffered a concussion during a high school football game. The trainer took him off the field. Emergency room doctors checked him out and he seemed to be OK. A day and a half later he hanged himself.

Doctors then examined his brain and found no CTE, but they did find multiple areas where the fibers that connect brain cells together had been damaged. The doctors strongly suspected the injury was what led to his sudden decision to kill himself.

Hubry mentions a book by Dr. Robert Cantu, “Concussion and Our Kids,” in which he recommends that children younger than 14 avoid playing collision sports under current rules. It appears to me that coaches, parents and anyone interested in the well-being of young athletes would benefit from reading the book.

Another question is whether anyone should be watching football especially professional games? I wonder how people can enjoy watching a sport that damages the body both outside and inside. Watching such games gives tacit approval to the mayhem that takes place.

As a final note my children are all middle-age adults so I don’t expect them to get involved in playing football, but I would not want my grandchildren or my two great-grandchildren to play football unless it was flag football.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician whose interest is in preventive medicine. He was medical officer in the U.S. Navy for four years and also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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