The suicide of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson last week is raising more questions about what role multiple concussions have on athletes’ brains and mental health.
It is too early to say whether chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the disorder linked to the 2006 suicide of former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters, played a role in Duerson’s death. But before the 50-year-old killed himself, he asked that his brain be donated to the center that studies the disorder.
Chris Nowinski, co-director the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, said 13 of the 14 NFL players they have studied post-mortem have had the disease, including Andre Waters.
“He was the first brain I was able to procure for the research,” Nowinski said. “So, for me and for a lot of the world’s awareness, it all started in Philadelphia with what Andre Waters taught us with his tragic passing.”
CTE is linked to cognitive and behavioral problems including depression and impulse control later in life. It eventually causes dementia.
More than 300 athletes are enrolled in a longitudinal study at the center which is examining the brains of former athletes over time. Members of the study undergo annual cognitive check-ups to spot and track decline. They also agree to donate their brains and spinal cords for study after they die.
Kevin Turner, an Eagles fullback in the mid-1990s, is one of the NFL veterans enrolled. He said he hopes that tragedies such as Duerson’s death and ongoing research into traumatic brain injury and CTE will create a culture change among NFL players. That’s the only thing, he said, that will make them take better care of themselves.
“Just because your eyes can follow a pen that the doctor holds in front of you, or you can remember your name and a couple plays, that may not mean you’re ready to go back in and play,” Turner said.
When Turner blew out his knee in 1995, he said he spent six months in rehab. When he got knocked out in 1997, playing a half of a quarter that he didn’t remember, he returned for the second half. He doesn’t remember getting a CAT scan or MRI.
“We just have to treat the brain kind of like we do the knee,” he said.
Now, Turner, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease last summer, said it is too late for the research he is involved with to help him. But he said he wants to help the next generation of players.
Keith Krepfle, an Eagle from 1974 to 1981, said he is saddened by Duerson’s death but tries not to let worry about what is going on in his own brain consume him.
“Life is going to be the way it’s going to be, we’re going to age the way we do,” Krepfle said. “Some of us may be affected by this in later years and some of us may not.”