updated 4:38 PM EDT, Wed September 5, 2012
(CNN) -- Just hours before the 2012 NFL season kicks off, a new study suggests that professional football players are three times more likely to have neurodegenerative diseases than the general population. When researchers specifically looked at Alzheimer's disease and ALS -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease -- that risk increased to four times greater than the rest of us. The study, published Wednesday in the medical journal Neurology, surveyed nearly 3,500 retired NFL players who were in the league between 1959 and 1988. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, had been following this group of players since the early '90s, when the NFL asked the institute to evaluate them for their risk of cardiovascular disease. This time, the authors decided to look at the neurological outcomes of the players by specifically evaluating the autopsies of 334 players. "We looked at all the death certificates, and Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and ALS had significant contribution to the death," according to study co-author Elliot Lehman. When tallying those specific diseases, the authors found that among the 334 players, seven had died from Alzheimer's and another seven with ALS. Three players had died with Parkinson's disease, but the authors didn't find that to be significant when compared with the larger population. The average age of the players who had died was 57.
Those numbers may seem small, but as Lehman explains, "these are generally rare diseases, especially at the younger age. Even when looking at the general population, you're generally going to have small numbers." However, the numbers, although small, were still considered statistically significant, according to Lehman, an epidemiologist at the National Institute...