Story at a glance

  • A new study was published that analyzed more than 19,000 former and current NFL athletes from 1960 to 2019.
  • The results found that NFL athletes had a four times higher incidence and mortality rates for ALS compared to the general U.S. male population.
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and attacks a person’s brain and spinal cord.

A massive study published on Wednesday revealed NFL athletes carried a much higher risk for developing and dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The study analyzed 19,423 former and current NFL athletes between 1960 to 2019 that played at least one professional game. The results found that NFL players had a four times higher incidence and mortality rates of ALS compared to the general U.S. male population. Those athletes who were diagnosed with ALS had been playing football for approximately two-and-half years longer than those without ALS.

ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that attacks a person’s brain and spinal cord. It results in the wasting away of muscle, loss of movement and eventually leads to paralysis. The ALS Therapy Development Institute estimates there are about 30,000 people living with ALS in the U.S. 

ALS isn’t usually genetic, as about 90 percent of all known cases are sporadic, with no known history of the disease in a family.


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Researchers studied former and current NFL players whose ages ranged from 23- to 78-years-old, and found that 38 of them received an ALS diagnosis. Another 28 died during the study time frame, which researchers took as representing a significantly higher incidence of an ALS diagnosis and mortality. 

Among the NFL athletes in the study, those who received an ALS diagnosis had significantly longer careers, an average of about four years, than those players who didn’t have ALS.

Researchers noted there were no differences in ALS status based on athletes’ NFL fame, body mass index, position played, birth location or race.

It’s generally accepted that there are certain risk factors associated with ALS, which include repetitive head impacts and traumatic brain injury, but researchers acknowledged they weren’t able to identify the specific risk factors responsible for an increased rate of ALS among NFL players.

However researchers did discuss the relationship between head trauma and ALS because of a similar connection between football and another neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Researchers said ALS and CTE may be linked, as a previous study from 2018 looked at 155 veterans with ALS who donated their brains for research. That study found that just under 6 percent of veterans were found to have evidence of CTE. Those with ALS and CTE were more likely to have a history of ALS symptoms, mood disorders and behavioral disorders. 

There are key differences in ALS and CTE, with the ALS Association explaining that it usually takes one year for an ALS diagnosis to be made, due to the complexity of the disease and possible overlaps with similar neurodegenerative disorders.

CTE on the other hand is only definitively diagnosed after death by studying brain tissue during an autopsy. Overall, there isn’t enough known about what types of head trauma cause ALS and CTE.

Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System, told CNN that, “It has become clear that years of repeated impacts to the head can cause the human brain to break down along many pathways."

Researchers from Wednesday’s study prefaced their results by also saying that other potential factors like smoking, exercise exertion and pesticide exposure needed to be evaluated too in their relation to ALS. 


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Published on Dec 15, 2021