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New Research Suggests Playing Football Could Heighten Parkinson’s Disease Risk

Emerging findings from the Boston University CTE Center propose a potential connection between playing football and an increased susceptibility to developing Parkinson’s disease. The study, drawing data from a comprehensive online survey supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, indicates that individuals with a history of engaging in organized tackle football have a 61% higher likelihood of reporting a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or parkinsonism. The latter term encompasses symptoms like tremors and stiffness that adversely affect movement. In contrast, those who participated in other organized sports exhibited comparatively lower rates of these diagnoses.

The study’s insights, published in the esteemed medical journal JAMA Network Open, further reveal a notable correlation between higher levels of football involvement – encompassing professional and college play – and an elevated risk of Parkinson’s disease or parkinsonism. This risk, in these cases, was nearly threefold when compared to those who engaged in football at the youth or high school levels.

Neuroscientist Julie Stamm, a clinical assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, who was not associated with the study, emphasizes, “This adds to the accumulating body of evidence highlighting the enduring repercussions of repetitive brain trauma.”

Shifting from Boxing to Football Parkinson’s disease, elucidated by the National Institute on Aging as a brain disorder triggering involuntary and uncontrollable movements, like shaking and impaired balance, emanates from the deterioration or death of nerve cells in the basal ganglia – a brain region governing movement. Despite extensive study, the exact causes of this impairment remain uncertain. Typically manifesting after the age of 60, Parkinson’s symptoms manifest progressively over time.

In recent years, a mounting body of research has linked head trauma in contact sports like football to neurodegenerative brain ailments, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A seminal 2017 study detected CTE in the brains of 99% of deceased NFL players who donated their brains for scientific investigation. This revelation prompted the NFL to publicly acknowledge the link between football and neurodegenerative brain conditions.

While the Boston University CTE Center has been at the forefront of research into CTE in the United States, its focus shifted toward Parkinson’s disease due to the historical correlation between boxing and Parkinson’s. Michael Alosco, a co-director of clinical research at the center and one of the study’s authors, explains, “Both boxing and football share the commonality of exposing individuals to repeated head impacts. Hence, we sought to ascertain whether a similar association exists with football.”

A Restricted Exploration According to Alosco, research on the connection between football and Parkinson’s disease remains limited. This recent study, however, constitutes the largest investigation to date elucidating the possible link between football and this neurological condition. Significantly, unlike prior studies on sports-related brain diseases, this research includes amateur athletes, enhancing its comprehensive nature.

Stamm concurs, asserting, “With its extensive sample size and robust methodology, this study holds considerable persuasiveness.”