A career of hard knocks to the head will not necessarily leave pro athletes with serious, permanent brain damage. That’s the take-home message from a small study. The new data come from tests of 21 retired athletes. All had been football players with the Buffalo Bills or hockey players with the Buffalo Sabres. Each player allowed researchers to extensively scan his brain. The players also took behavioral tests. From these, the scientists turned up no signs of early dementia or unusual rates of mental decline. The former hockey and football players had expected bad news. They “were pretty much their own worst critics,” says Barry Willer, an author of the new research. The athletes had believed their brains to be impaired, he notes.
The researchers also found no evidence of declines in the men’s attention, language and spatial abilities. Based on these tests, none of the former football and hockey players appeared to have early-onset dementia. Athletes who took part in the new study were in their mid-50s. So they would have been relatively young for a dementia diagnosis. Still, based on earlier reports of brain damage, the researchers had expected to find some signs of dementia in these football and hockey players.