October 30th, 2010 at 2:12 am
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Sports Illustrated Special Report Scores Touchdown for Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

by Carol Bursack

November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. The November 1, 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated takes advantage of this awareness campaign to inform the public about the risks of sport’s related brain injuries that could lead to dementia – especially injuries sustained while playing football.

The Sports Illustrated cover tosses us their hard hitting special report titled “Concussions.” Two subheads shout, “The Hits That Are Changing the Game,” written by Peter King, plus “And the Hits No One Is Noticing,” written by David Epstein. This important package examines the damage done to the men of the NFL, and even more frightening to me, the much younger men who play football in high school and college. The articles are fascinating and extremely disturbing, given our sometimes sport’s obsessed culture.

These stories push to the forefront the ongoing research that’s been actively examining football injuries and their effect on aging brains. As far back as 2007, the New York Times ran a story titled, Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma. The Times article brought into focus the increasing numbers of former NFL players and their wives who are coping with the results of repeated brain trauma – Alzheimer’s disease.

In “The Damage Done,” David Epstein writes, “Using NFL-sponsored studies as a guide, the researchers figured that hits in excess of 80 times the force of gravity (heading a soccer ball produces around 20 Gs) would cause concussions. So the Purdue researchers were stunned when, on the first day of full-contact practice, they started seeing hits of 100 Gs or more. “I thought, Oh, my god, we’re going to be carrying these kids off the field,” says Eric Nauman, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering…It turned out, however, that no particular magnitude of hit correlated with a concussion. ..”

Further down in the story you’ll read, “…it’s possible that all along, while brain trauma questions have focused on concussions, the real damage is being inflicted by minor impacts that chip away at the brain…”

The full Sports Illustrated package is worthy of study, whether you are interested in NFL players, dementia in general, or if your football playing son will be a sitting duck for Alzheimer’s as he hits middle age.

Much is being done to try to combat this very real risk for players, but much more needs to be done. Talented athletes aren’t going to stop playing the sport they love simply because of something that “could” happen to them several decades down the road.

I commend Sports Illustrated for giving this information life and focus. The risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias should concern us all. More answers are needed, and for that to happen, public awareness is key, as public awareness will help push money toward research that may find a way to stop Alzheimer’s.

We want people to enjoy playing sports. We also want them to enjoy their last years, dementia free. For now, prevention is the only “cure” for Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually, we hope that the disease, which starts decades before there are symptoms, will be reversible. That is a worthy goal for us all.

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