Thursday, July 12, 2012

Head Injuries and the Everyday Athlete

NY Times (July 11, 2012)- Much has been studied and reported, particularly in this newspaper, about the short-term effects of concussions on young athletes, as well as the potential longer-term outcomes for professional athletes who engage in high-level contact sports like football and ice hockey for many years, putting themselves at risk for multiple concussions and the lesser but still consequential subconcussive injuries.

But until recently, far less has been understood about the long-term implications, if any, of concussions experienced years ago by recreational athletes. Does a 55-year-old man who played high school football in the ’70s and perhaps grew dizzy or “had his bell rung” after a tackle or two need to worry about the state of his brain today, even if he never had a formal diagnosis of concussion? Or do I, because I bounced my head hard against the slopes several times while learning to snowboard 10 years ago?

The emerging answer, according to recent research, would seem to be a cautious “probably not,” although there may be reason to monitor how easily names and places come to mind.

For a study published in May in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers at the University of Montreal examined the brains of a group of healthy, middle-aged former athletes, all of whom had played contact sports in college about 30 years ago and some of whom had sustained concussions while doing so.

In the years since, the athletes had stopped competing but had remained physically active. None complained of failing memories or other symptoms of cognitive impairment — or at least, not more so than any group of 50- and 60-year-olds would be expected to complain.

The researchers scanned the volunteers’ brains using M.R.I. machines and automated measuring techniques that precisely determine the volume and other structural components of various brain segments. They also used separate scanning technology that looks at the metabolic health of particular neurons. Finally, they had volunteers complete tests of their long- and short-term memory, including their ability to dredge up specific words, a task that many of us who’ve reached middle age find daunting.

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