Many Former Professional Football Players Report Daily Cognitive Problems and Low Quality of Life

In recent years, the prevalence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among professional football players has received increasing media attention. Although researchers know that TBI is associated with negative symptoms (such as cognitive deficits, neurological impairments, and mental illness), former professional football players may be reluctant to disclose their long-term neurological outcomes—especially if these include mental health disorders. However, researchers still need to ascertain football players’ cognitive and mental status in order to understand the long-term effects of professional football careers on former athletes’ quality of life.

To do so, a team of researchers at the Harvard University Medical School used two self-report measures (the Quality of Life in Neurological Disorders [Neuro-QOL] Item Bank and the Patient-Reported Outcome Measurement Information System [PROMIS]) to assess former professional football players’ cognitive symptoms, mental health problems, and overall quality of life. After analyzing results from the 3,758 former players, the researchers determined that:

  • Nearly half (40%) of the athletes said they experienced disruptions to their everyday lives as a result of cognitive dysfunction.
  • Those who reported daily cognitive dysfunction were significantly more likely to report depression (18%) compared to those who did not report cognitive problems (3%).
  • Former players with cognitive problems were also more likely to experience memory deficits, poor mental health, low satisfaction with social relationships, emotional challenges, and overall lower quality of life.

Given the high-impact nature of the sport, football players are at significant risk for sustaining multiple TBIs during their professional careers. As a result, a large proportion of former football players report cognitive deficits and subsequent low quality of life at a much higher rate than the general population. To ensure that athletes lead healthy, satisfying lives after retirement, policy makers should remain committed to revising safety protocols to reduce football players’ risk of sustaining multiple TBIs during their professional careers.

Plessow F, Pascual-Leone A, McCracken CM, et al. Self-reported cognitive function and mental health diagnoses among former professional American-style football players. Neurotrauma. (April 2020).

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