A Preliminary Study of Early-Onset Dementia of Former Professional Football and Hockey Players

J Head Trauma Rehabil. 2018 Sep/Oct;33(5):E1-E8. doi: 10.1097/HTR.0000000000000421.


Objective: To provide an overview of 3 studies of the same population of retired professional contact sport athletes compared with age-matched noncontact sport athlete controls on cognition, executive function, behavior, and advanced brain imaging.

Setting: University Concussion Management Clinic.

Participants: Twenty-two retired professional hockey and football athletes (average age 56 years) and 21 age-matched noncontact sport athlete controls.

Design: Case control.

Main measures: Participants were assessed on a broad range of neuropsychological measures that are associated with identification of mild cognitive impairment and executive function. Athletes were also assessed using self-report measures of executive function and personality. Advanced structural and functional imaging techniques were utilized as well.

Results: The former National Football League and National Hockey League athletes perceived themselves to have impaired executive function, but this was not confirmed by objective neurocognitive assessment. No significant differences were found when comparing contact-sport athletes with controls on the presence of mild cognitive impairment or brain structural and functional tissue injury. Contact sport athletes were more anxious and more likely to report unusual beliefs and experiences.

Conclusion: None of the retired contact sport athletes qualified as having early-onset dementia consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There were no remarkable differences in imaging, cognition, behavior, or executive function from noncontact sport athletes. The results underscore an apparent disconnect between public perceptions and evidence-based conclusions about the inevitability of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the potential neurodegenerative effect on former athletes from contact sports.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Athletes
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy / diagnosis
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / diagnosis
  • Dementia / diagnosis*
  • Executive Function
  • Football*
  • Hockey*
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests*
  • Physical Examination
  • Retirement