Head Injuries Are More Serious Than You Think

Study of retired football players reveals serious risk for many sports.

Medically reviewed in January 2021

It's becoming clear that the rough-and-tumble nature of football—with blows to the head week in and week out—can be hard on the buttery-soft brain. But according to psychiatrist and brain health expert Daniel Amen, MD, "brain injuries are much more serious than most people thought."

Hit After Hit
One of Dr. Amen's studies involves 45 retired professional football players—former NFL defensive backs and offensive linemen between the ages of 26 and 82. At the Amen Clinics, the men's brains were evaluated while they performed a cognitive task that required attention and focus. Their cognitive scores and SPECT brain scans showed clear signs of trouble. When compared to nonplayers, their scores were lower and their brains showed two areas that weren't getting enough blood—the medial frontal and medial temporal lobes.

"The medial frontal lobe is associated with judgment, impulse control, forethought and learning from mistakes," explains Amen. "The temporal lobes are involved with learning, memory, mood stability and temper control." The ex-athletes are being seen every six months for follow-up, and the researchers think the lower scores and reduced blood flow could predict dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Beyond the Gridiron
These early findings shed light on the effects of football, a much-loved sport in the US. But Amen is also looking at the bigger picture. He wants the average American to think about all the ways we put our brains at risk. Obvious high-risk activities include bicycling, hockey, skiing and mixed martial arts. But don't forget about soccer, horseback riding and cheerleading, too.

Here are some common sense ways to protect your noggin.

  • Believe in helmets. Understanding how helmets make a difference can help you and your family be more diligent about wearing one.
  • Get help right away. Remember the basic signs of a concussion, and head to the ER immediately if you spot any of these problems.
  • Trust your gut. Athletes (especially teens) tend to downplay their injuries. Here's what you can ask your kid to see if they may need to see a doctor.
  • Take it slowYou may be anxious to get back to work, or your kid may be eager to get back on the field, but talk to your doctor first. When it comes to your brain, it's much better to be safe than sorry.

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