Concussions impact NFL players’ cognition years later, study shows


March 2, 2023

A new study released Thursday found that former professional football players who recalled suffering concussions perform worse in cognitive tests years later than those who hadn’t played the sport.

The study, published in the journal Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, showed that the athletes posted scores worse than non-players on assessments of episodic memory, sustained attention, processing speed and vocabulary.

Researchers at Mass General Brigham investigators from McLean Hospital and the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network led the study.

“It is well-established that in the hours and days after a concussion, people experience some cognitive impairment,” Laura Germine, director of the Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology at McLean Hospital, said in a statement.

“However, when you look decades out, the data on the long-term impact has been mixed,” said Germine, who also is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“These new findings from the largest study of its kind show that professional football players can still experience cognitive difficulties associated with head injuries decades after they have retired from the sport.”

Researchers said that 353 retired NFL players completed hour-long neuropsychological tests through an online platform called TestMyBrain, which is supported by McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The tests were performed remotely on a laptop or desktop, and included assessments that measured processing speed, visual-spatial and working memory, and aspects of short- and long-term memory and vocabulary.

Concerns about professional football players and concussions have remained in the national headlines since pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu published the first evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, in 2005 in his diagnosis of former NFL star Mike Webster.

Such brain injuries also have been diagnosed in athletes from other sports like boxing and soccer and non-athletic occupations like the military.

In the Mass General Brigham study, younger former players outperformed nonplayers on some tests, while older retired players were more likely to perform worse than controls on cognitive tasks.

Researchers noted that many head injuries or sub-concussive blows may not have been diagnosed at the time players were active as concussions due to a lack of awareness at the time or underreporting of symptoms by players.

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