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As scrutiny of brain injuries in football players escalated the past three years, with prominent professionals reporting cognitive problems, academic studies supporting an association, and autopsies of former NFL players revealing brain damage resembling advanced Alzheimer’s disease, the National Football League and its medical committee on concussions have steadfastly denied the existence of reliable data on the issue. The league pledged to pursue its own studies, including one at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

The Michigan study commissioned by the NFL reports that Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49. The study has not been peer-reviewed, but the findings are consistent with several recent independent studies regarding NFL players and the effects of their multiple concussions.

Dr. Ira Casson, a co-chairman of the concussions committee who has been the league’s primary voice denying any evidence connecting NFL football and dementia, said: “What I take from this report is there’s a need for further studies to see whether or not this finding is going to pan out, if it’s really there or not. I can see that the [survey] respondents believe they have been diagnosed. But the next step is to determine whether that is so.” The NFL is conducting its own rigorous study of 120 retired players, with results expected within a few years. All neurological examinations are being conducted by Dr. Casson. In any legislative body, a sure way for one to kill a bill one opposes is to recommend that the matter be sent back for further study. It sounds like the NFL is taking pointers from the politicians.

In the meantime, from the Pop Warner to the college football level, hundreds of on-field concussions are sustained each week, with many going undiagnosed and untreated. The players who are properly diagnosed are often released prematurely back to full contact. Youth and college football programs take their cues from the NFL, so it’s time for the NFL to step up, acknowledge the problem, and take the lead in prevention.

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