A new study commissioned by the National Football League and conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research may add to an increasing level of scrutiny over whether concussions sustained while playing football could have long-term consequences for players. But the study’s top researcher says that some of the findings may be blown out of proprtion.

Dr. David Weir, the report’s lead author, said a surprising number of professional football retirees age 50 and above reported having been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory-related illnesses.

“We found that there was a substantially higher rate of people saying they did have such a diagnosis among the NFL retirees compared to the general population of men the same age,” Weir said.

NFL retirees reported diagnoses of dementia and related illnesses at a rate of more than 6 percent — more than five times the national average, which is about 1.2 percent. But the difference, Weir said, may be partly a result of the survey design and that conclusions should not be taken too seriously.

The NFL and its Player Care Foundation approached the University’s Institute for Social Research to investigate the welfare of pension-eligible retirees. The resulting survey, which was conducted last November, compiled the data from phone interviews with a sample of 1,063 former professional players.

Weir, also an associate director at the University’s Survey Research Center, said cognitive decline was only a small component of the overall survey, which covered a wide range of topics, including marital status, income and employment of participating retirees.

Modeled partly after the National Health Interview Survey, the report noted more concrete trends for health concerns, like arthritis and general joint pain — conditions prevalent in the sampled retirees. The survey also relied on several mental health questions to screen for depression and anger. However, the University survey asked only one question about diagnoses of cognitive illness.

Not yet peer-reviewed, the survey’s researchers admitted that a higher rate of dementia diagnoses may also be attributed to the significant interaction between football players and their doctors, compared to the interaction between doctors and the general population.

“A telephone survey is not going to be adequate when you want to make an assessment of whether a person has dementia or cognitive impairment,” Weir said. “More high quality scientific research is needed to actually establish this relationship.”

The survey has already prompted the NFL to begin conducting its own scientific inquiry with a subset of retirees — after the league historically pushed off similar studies in the past.

Weir said the impact at the collegiate and high school levels for football remains to be seen, but the concerns would be equally relevant.

“If there really are health consequences, there’s a much larger group of people affected than in just professional sports,” he said.

If a definitive causation is established, the appropriate regulatory measures and equipment will be needed to minimize the number of concussions or related head injuries, Weir said. Further study into the actual relationship between participation in football and cognitive decline will also provide some context for the nature of memory disorders, he said.

“It’s not just about the football,” Weir said. “Dementia is a really serious public health problem and, as the population ages, it’s going to become even more so in the future.”

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