CTE Diagnoses in Living Players
May 12, 2020
It’s possible that you know someone who has been given a diagnosis of CTE while still alive. CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a real condition that can be diagnosed only after a person passes away because scientists and doctors have yet to definitively tie symptoms in living players to changes in brain imaging. As a result, there is no test today that can confirm whether a living person has CTE.
What the Science Says
- A recent report from the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University found that some former players reported receiving a CTE diagnosis from their medical care provider.
- Former players of color, older former players, and former linemen were more likely to receive CTE diagnoses.
- Former players with CTE diagnoses were more likely to report sleep apnea, diabetes, hypertension, and other conditions that independently cause cognitive problems.
It’s possible that you, a former teammate, friend, or loved one have been given a diagnosis of CTE, and such diagnoses may have understandably led to confusion, anxiety, or uncertainty. Below are resources to help you navigate any concerns with a doctor or on your own.
What This Means for You
- Other conditions commonly found in former football players may produce symptoms that have been attributed to CTE. Those symptoms, including difficulty with memory and concentration, mood swings, irritability, and confusion, can also be caused by sleep apnea, chronic pain, use of prescription pain medication (e.g., opioids), hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and more.
- While these conditions can lead to a decline in cognitive function, managing or treating them has been shown to improve cognitive health (memory, thinking, concentration, mood swings) in measurable ways.
It is possible that some former players in our study have the underlying brain changes associated with CTE. Whether the symptoms they are experiencing are eventually tied to CTE or not, we believe that doctors should still be prioritizing health issues that can be managed or treated. Below are some steps former players can take when discussing symptoms with their physicians, as well as other resources for improving cognitive health today.
What You Can do with a Doctor or Specialist
If your clinician suggests that you may have CTE, ask if you have been tested for the following conditions that can affect cognitive function:
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes or high blood sugar
- Sleep apnea
- High cholesterol
- Other heart conditions
- Low testosterone
If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of cognitive impairment, talk to your primary care physician (PCP) about getting a comprehensive neurocognitive evaluation from a neurologist or highly trained specialist. If you don’t currently have a doctor, contact the NFL Life Line or The Trust (Powered by the NFLPA) to get help finding a physician in your area.
To learn more about your health during a visit to the doctor:
- Ask questions
- Don’t be afraid to question a CTE diagnosis
- Seek second opinions from specialists
- Follow through and follow up with your physicians
It is important that your physician listens to you. Your PCP should be someone you trust, who understands your background, and with whom you can work.
What You Can do on Your Own
Physical exercise has been shown to be effective in improving cognitive health and quality of life:
- Ask your physician to recommend specific exercises and lifestyle choices known to provide cardiovascular benefit while limiting wear and tear on joints, especially if you’ve had a prior ACL tear or joint injury.
- Even if you are not going to the gym, find resources for working out indoors. On YouTube, FitnessBlender and Yoga with Adriene are two great channels that have been keeping the study team active. Furthermore, EXOS’s Twitter feed includes creative ways to stay healthy at home.
Train your brain:
- Try a different walking route around your neighborhood or find a Sudoku puzzle to keep your brain sharp.
- If you would like to learn more about specific techniques and strategies for enhancing cognitive health, contact us for a copy of Harvard’s Guide to Cognitive Fitness.
Reach out to your social circle:
- Maintaining a healthy social life with friends and family has been shown to improve cognitive function, physical health, and even extend the lifespan.
- During times of social distancing, arrange a hangout with friends through Zoom or FaceTime to strengthen these vital connections.
- This CDC fact sheet, Answering Questions About Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), provides useful information regarding CTE, CTE diagnosis, and more.
- Medical/Wellness Assessments from The Trust (Powered by the NFLPA)
- Brain and Body Assessment provides comprehensive medical evaluations to players who have been out of the NFL for fewer than 15 years. This program identifies areas of concern and the resources and services to address them.
- Milestone Wellness Assessment provides comprehensive medical evaluations to players who have been out of the NFL for 15 years or more. This program identifies areas of concern and the resources and services to address them.
- Sleep apnea or other sleep problems may affect cognition and mood. Check out this resource on sleep apnea and consider consulting your doctor about a sleep evaluation that may help you to learn more about your own sleep.
- NFL Life Line is a free, independent and confidential phone consultation service that is available to former players and their families 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Life Line is run by professionals who are trained to assist individuals seeking resources for mental or physical health concerns or who are experiencing personal or emotional crises. Contact: (800) 506-0078.
- The Players Assistance & Counseling Services benefit provides eligible former players and their families with up to eight free counseling sessions a year for matters ranging from family/marital concerns to depression. Contact: (866) 421-8628.
If you have questions about this information, please email our team or call us at 617-432-5000.