How bad is football for the brain?
Mike Adamle spent half a dozen years in the NFL as a running back in the 1970's. He recently retired from sportscasting and is living with what he says doctors believe may be chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
"The only thing that I remember was that he said you have symptoms that are concurrent with CTE," Adamle said.
CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma. Currently, it can only be confirmed after death.
Adamle says life is up and down. He fights against the depression, frustration and forgetfulness with exercise, diet, and cognitive stimulation. He also relies on the support of friends and family.
"We've got sort of a fraternity of players who just, you know, call each other up whenever we need it, and, you know, for lack of a better phrase, talk each other off the ledge, you know," he said. "Because you do really get paranoid, and depressed."
In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ann McKee of the VA Boston Healthcare System and the Boston University CTE Center analyzed the donated brains of deceased former football players who played in high school, college and the pros.
Doctors examined their brains for signs of CTE and the relatives of players provided information about athletic histories, mood and cognitive symptoms.
Pathologic evidence of CTE was found in 177 of the 202 former players -- a whopping 87 percent. That includes 110 of the 111 NFL players whose brains were studied.
"The main results were there was a shockingly high percentage of CTE amongst the brain donors," McKee said. "That is we found 110 out of 111 former NFL players had diagnostic lesions of CTE at autopsy, we found 91 percent of college players… and we found even evidence of CTE in some high school players about three of 14 or 21 percent."
"So this says to us that CTE is a problem, it is a problem associated with football," she continued.
The study says it has several limitations. Researchers say it's important to remember that brain bank donors don't represent the overall population of former football players.
Adamle wants the game of football to be safer.
"Whether they can do that over a period of time in the next 20 years, I'm not certain, I don't think anybody's certain," he said.
"So what I would like to see going forward is a comprehensive, collective determination to solve this CTE problem," McKee said. "That is, how can we diagnose it in young players so they can stop playing when they're already developing signs of it, and how can we treat it in players that are concerned that they already have it."
"These to me are enormous public health concerns that we need to address right away," she continued.