Is the National Football League our best hope for Alzheimer's progress?

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

More than 110 million Americans watched yesterday's Super Bowl in New Orleans. It's not too hard to see why the game has become our nation's defining cultural ritual. Nothing else packages entertainment, sports and the gladiator spirit quite like the National Football League's crowning event.

Over the years, the league has minted more than its share of millionaires — both on the field and off. In the current season, TV revenue alone hit $5.1 billion. Of the top 32 television shows in the fall of 2012, NFL games were 31 of them.

It would seem that there is no end in sight to the NFL's continued economic growth. Or is there? At its core, the game is essentially a brutal gang fight. While those battles provide great entertainment, they are clearly hazardous to the health of their participants. That's especially true when it comes to brain trauma, which is emerging as an occupational hazard.

The physical and psychological effects of traumatic brain injury are eerily similar to those of Alzheimer's disease. For example, the symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury (an oxymoron if there ever was one) include:

  • a state of being dazed, confused or disoriented
  • memory or concentration problems
  • headache
  • dizziness or loss of balance
  • nausea or vomiting
  • sensory problems
  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • mood changes or mood swings
  • feeling depressed or anxious
  • fatigue or drowsiness

In cases of moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries, the symptoms are even more alarming. They include:

  • profound confusion
  • agitation, combativeness or other unusual behavior
  • slurred speech
  • inability to awaken from sleep
  • weakness or numbness in fingers and toes
  • loss of coordination
  • persistent headache or headache that worsens
  • repeated vomiting or nausea
  • convulsions or seizures

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the symptoms of Alzheimer's and brain trauma are so alike. In both cases, victims are enduring the collective damage of prolonged attacks on their brains.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that the federal government alone will spend about $450 million this year on Alzheimer's research.

Far be it from me to say that $450 million is a chintzy contribution. But the number does pale when compared to Uncle Sam's efforts to research diseases such as AIDS ($3 billion), heart disease ($4 billion) or cancer ($6 billion). This, despite the fact that more people die from complications of Alzheimer's each year than prostate and breast cancer combined.

Drug companies don't like to advertise what they are up to. But it's probably a safe bet that they are investing many millions more, even if the ROI has been less than encouraging. Currently, only five drugs are approved for dealing with Alzheimer's: Aricept, Razadyne, Namenda, Exelon and Cognex.

Not one of these medications can actually cure Alzheimer's; only try to slow it down.

And that's where the NFL comes in. None of the billionaire owners or millionaire players wants the proverbial golden goose to be cooked. So it's a safe bet that they are going to aggressively target head trauma. In doing so, they will enthusiastically pursue new ways to prevent, minimize and derail its collateral damage.

It's possible that some of the looming NFL-backed investigations just might help us deal with Alzheimer's in profoundly better ways. Should that happen, we as a nation will have something far more important to collectively celebrate than a football game.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.