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Initial Results from UTSW Research on Long-Term Effects of College Athletics on Brain Health

In 2022, research commenced at U-T Southwestern Medical Center exploring the potential impact of college sports and sports-related concussions on brain health in later years. KERA’s Sam Baker discussed initial findings from the first phase with one of the lead investigators, who holds positions as a Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Neurological Surgery at U-T Southwestern Medical Center.

Is this study a continuation of your ongoing research efforts or was there a specific trigger for it?

The impetus behind this research stems from the abundance of both accurate and misleading information circulating in the media regarding the long-term effects of concussions. Our aim is to delve into this subject to clarify misconceptions and gain insights into the cognitive well-being of older individuals who may have experienced concussions earlier in life.

What kinds of misinformation have you encountered?

There is significant discourse surrounding chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that has garnered attention due to reports of abnormal brain pathology in some former NFL players. While there are suggestions linking this pathology to a history of concussions or repetitive head trauma, CTE remains a poorly understood condition. Despite its media coverage and discussions around clinical diagnosis, CTE is primarily diagnosed posthumously through pathology, rather than clinically during an individual’s lifetime.

The term “CTE” is often misused, leading to misconceptions and undue alarm among parents and individuals. Although it receives substantial media coverage, it is crucial to note that CTE is a rare condition, and its prevalence may be overstated.

Initially, the study aimed for 500 participants aged 50 and above, a target that has been significantly surpassed. Were you surprised by the level of participation?

The overwhelming response to our study surpassing the target participant number indicates a growing concern among individuals regarding brain health, general well-being, and healthy lifestyle choices. This heightened interest also reflects the broader apprehensions people harbor regarding the long-term implications of concussions, particularly concerning the effects on cognitive health as individuals age.

Is the study’s objective to investigate the potential long-term effects of concussions in individuals over 50 years old?

Indeed, our study focuses on examining individuals aged 50 and above, encompassing both athletes and non-athletes with and without a history of concussions. A notable aspect of our research involves exploring the impact of concussions on aging female athletes, a demographic that has been relatively understudied in this context. By investigating the cognitive outcomes, mental health, and overall quality of life in aging female athletes with and without a history of concussions, we aim to fill existing gaps in knowledge regarding this specific demographic.

The initial phase revealed that approximately 25% of former female athletes expressed concerns about cognitive issues in later life.

The findings from the preliminary phase align closely with our expectations based on existing surveys and research. While the prevalence of concern among female participants was within the anticipated range, it was notable given the historical male dominance in CTE-related reports, with limited female representation in studies to date.

Having concluded the first phase, what key insights can be gleaned from the current data?

The data gathered thus far indicates that the majority of former athletes, regardless of their concussion history, exhibit positive cognitive outcomes in later life. Initial assessments do not suggest a higher prevalence of reported symptoms such as memory loss or cognitive impairments among these individuals. Subsequent analysis will delve into additional aspects such as anxiety, depression, quality of life indicators, and various brain wellness metrics. Furthermore, forthcoming evaluations will explore gender-based disparities, duration of sports participation, age of onset in sports, concussion frequency, years of active play, and sport-specific considerations.