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January 25, 2019

Can Relationships and Personal Networks Impact the Health of Former Pro Football Players?

Harvard University’s Football Players Health Study launches new initiative to examine the functional, cognitive, and cardiovascular effects of personal networks.

At a glance:

  • First-of-its-kind study launched to examine the effects of personal networks on former NFL players’ health.
  • Findings could inform health interventions to reduce risk.
  • Short web-based survey provides personalized results and information for former players.
  • Watch two videos that introduce the Personal Network Study.

Personal networks and social environment have emerged as important factors in disease and health. But what role do they play in the lives of retired athletes?

The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University has launched a new initiative aimed at answering this very question.

As pro football players make the transition from roster to life off the field, their social environment also changes. These transitions—including the loss of a team structure and a change in physical activity levels—may also affect their social and family interactions, which in turn may precipitate changes in habits, daily routines, and lifestyles, all of which ultimately affect health.

Previous research conducted by neurologist Amar Dhand, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has found that an individual’s personal network is potently linked with risk of developing certain chronic health conditions. These networks have also been shown to play a role in helping people recover from an illness.

“In my research I’ve found that social networks are critically important in neurological conditions, and they are modifiable. In making this study available to former NFL players, we hope to examine diversity of social network types in retired athletes, their relationship to concussion and other health conditions faced by the players. This population is unique because they are elite athletes at risk for chronic conditions, and they will help us further understand social environmental effects and the potential of ‘social therapeutics’ to improve health outcomes,” said Dhand, the lead investigator on the project.

The research will analyze the relationships between personal networks and the functional, cognitive, and cardiac health of former football players.

A web-based survey available to former players takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes to complete. Former NFL players will receive personalized results and information on how to best utilize this feedback.

“As part of our focus on integrative health, the study of personal networks on player health offers yet another avenue to explore the many dimensions of player health, ranging from purely physiological to cognitive and social,” said Ross Zafonte, principal investigator of the Football Players Health Study and the HMS Earle P. and Ida S. Charlton Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “We hope to glean valuable insights on the role relationships might play in health and disease.”

About the Football Players Health Study

The Personal Network Study is one of a series of targeted studies within the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, a comprehensive research program that was launched in 2014. The goal of the study is to broaden our understanding of the benefits and risks of playing professional football, identify risks that are potentially reversible or preventable, and develop interventions to improve wellbeing and health.

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