Study: NFL players who experience concussions may exhibit cognitive failure later in life

A new study published on Thursday found that nearly 400 former NFL players roughly 30 years removed from their playing days who reported a history of concussions and concussion symptoms during their career exhibited poor cognitive function later on in life.

According to the study, funded by the NFL Players Association, researchers also found the loss of consciousness after concussion appeared to be an important indicator of reduced performance later in life. 

"We know that concussion in the context of professional football leads to some cognitive impairment in the short term. I mean, that's part of the definition of a concussion, right? So in the hours, days, and sometimes weeks people will have some things like poor memory, and slower speed, but the literature on how long those impairments might last or what it looks like 10, 20 or 30 years down the line is somewhat mixed," says the study's lead author Dr. Laura Germine who also directs the Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology at McLean Hospital.

"So in this case, the average player was 30 years from the end of their professional career when they did the cognitive testing. And what we saw was that these guys—when you compared them to men of a similar age—their performance was a little poorer, but nothing too dramatic," Germane added. 

As for the testing itself, the study looked at a really comprehensive range of cognitive skills—everything from visual memory to verbal memory to aspects of concentration and attention— as well as verbal knowledge. 

"The other domain that we looked at pretty comprehensively was processing speed," said Germine. 

"That was actually the domain that we saw that was most impacted, which is, I think. Particularly interesting because these guys are fast, right? They were professional athletes, so it's not something you would expect them to be bad at in general. But we saw that the ones who had the highest levels of concussion symptoms over the course of their career had the poorest processing speed in this sample," Germine continued. 

Some of the symptoms researchers noted in the former players included headaches, dizziness, confusion and poor balance. 

Those symptoms include headaches, dizziness, confusion and poor balance.

"Concussion symptoms are really important indicators that there is some impact that might even be long lasting and maybe even more important than formally diagnosed concussions," Germane explained. 

Germine explained that while pro football has come a long way in the past decade--better technology, testing and player education are key to preventing these types of symptoms in players in the future. 

"A lot of the rule changes are only going to be good for the long-term brain health and cognitive health of players. But there's no reason to stop here," Germane said. "So better technologies for detecting things like deceleration that might indicate there could be some brain injury, better methods for evaluating whether someone might be experiencing a concussion.