Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Iron Horse, ALS and Concussions

Yesterday marked 73rd anniversary of the date on which Lou Gehrig ended his consecutive games played streak at 2,130.  He took himself out of the line-up because of declining health, and while he would remain with the Yankees for the remainder of the season he never played another game.  Of course later he would be diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Athletes have been diagnosed with ALS at rates much higher than the general populace.  In fact, NFL players are diagnosed at 8 times what would be expected.  But what scientists are now discovering after examining the brains of some of these athletes is that they are not actually dying of ALS, but instead of other neurological problems that are masking themselves as ALS.  Members of the military also suffer from much higher rates of ALS, with speculation that it is head trauma that also causes this.

It is not known how many of the former athletes diagnosed with ALS actually have it and not something else, since there are few autopsies performed since they have a diagnosis.  But with the emphasis for former professional athletes to donate their brains for examination after their death to look for brain damage it is expected that more people who have been diagnosed with ALS will be found not to have actually had the disease.  It is even speculated by some, although it should be noted not by the scientists who are doing this work, that Lou Gehrig might not have had the disease.

Gehrig was known to have been hit in the head several times while batting, and he also played halfback in high school and college, so more than likely suffered some concussions during his career.  The fact that he was unwilling to sit out games for injury would have only exacerbated the problems he might have suffered from concussions.  This, of course, is all speculation since concussions were not as well known or talked about when he was playing, and his brain was not examined after his death.

All of this comes with the news that former NFL great Junior Seau was found dead in his home from a gunshot wound to the chest.  Although information is still sketchy, it is being investigated as an apparent suicide.  But, his death is very similar to that of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson who shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be examined by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University (Go Terriers!). Duerson's brain was found to have the same trauma induced damage seen in other former football players, leading in those cases to extreme mental problems.

It is not known if Seau was mimicking Duerson's death, but the similarities are certainly there, and we also know that Seau was concerned with the issue.  In an interview with Sports Illustrated Seau said:
"It (changes to the game) has to happen.  Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don't have a father who can't remember his name because of the game. I'm pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids' name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn't there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren't changing. That's not right."
While we might claim that professional players know the risks and so they should be able to do whatever they want, the simple fact is the vast, vast majority of those who play football are not adults, but instead are children and youth playing Pop Warner and High School football, and work being done on the brains of younger football players is showing the same type of damage.  As more and more evidence comes in the future of the sport is very unclear.  

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