Study of NFL players finds no link between time spent playing football and alcohol consumption

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A longitudinal study of NFL players found no association between the number of years an individual spent playing American football and alcohol use habits later in life. Similarly, alcohol use showed no association with the number of concussions a player sustained. The paper was published in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.

Traumatic brain injury, a type of brain damage resulting from sudden impact or force to the head, can disrupt normal brain function. These injuries vary from mild (such as concussions) to severe. Severe traumatic brain injuries can result in long-term cognitive, physical, and emotional impairments. Moreover, repetitive brain injuries, sustained over time, can lead to similar effects.

Individuals who play American football are at a heightened risk of traumatic brain injuries, given the sport’s high-impact nature. The frequent collisions and tackles inherent to the game often result in head impacts. Research indicates that these repeated impacts, even without diagnosed concussions, can accumulate and elevate the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition linked to repeated head traumas.

Efforts to mitigate the risk of brain injuries in American football have led to changes in the sport’s rules, advancements in protective gear like helmets, and better awareness and management protocols for concussions. Despite these improvements, traumatic brain injuries continue to be a major concern in the sport.

Research suggests a two-way relationship between traumatic brain injuries and alcohol use; individuals with a history of such injuries are prone to alcohol use, and excessive drinking can increase the risk of sustaining a traumatic brain injury for various reasons. Both conditions are linked to diminished neurobehavioral functioning. However, despite athletes’ risk of traumatic brain injuries during their careers, studies have consistently found no link between these injuries and subsequent alcohol use.

In their new study, Brittany Lang and her team sought to explore the connection between concussion history, years spent playing American football, and later life alcohol use among former professional players. This study is part of the ongoing Neurologic Function across the Lifespan: A Prospective, LONGitudinal, and Translational Study for Former National Football League Players (NFL-LONG).

In 2001, a general health survey was dispatched to all living members of the NFL Retired Players Association, with 69% or 2,536 members responding. A revised survey was sent in 2019 to these members, and 1,784 of them responded, including 348 who had also completed the 2001 survey. This allowed researchers to compare responses from these two points, 18 years apart, in their analysis.

Participants provided information on their demographic background, concussion history, and the total years they played American football. The number of years played served as a proxy for the extent of repetitive head injuries sustained. Questions about alcohol consumption frequency and quantity per occasion were included, alongside the CAGE scale to measure problematic alcohol use. For this study, the authors analyzed concussion data from 2001 and alcohol use data from both survey points.

The study found a decrease in the frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption among participants from 2001 to 2019. The proportion of abstainers increased from 19% to 26%, and among drinkers, the percentage consuming 1-2 drinks per occasion rose from 24% to 42%.

No link was found between problematic alcohol use symptoms and the years spent playing American football or concussion history. Similarly, concussion history was not associated with alcohol consumption patterns.

The study authors concluded, “In this study of former NFL players, alcohol use was not related to concussion history or total years of American football participation. These findings do not support the use of alcohol consumption behaviors as explanatory variables in linking head injury history to adverse neurobehavioral functioning in former football players.”

The study makes a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the relationship between traumatic head injuries and alcohol use in former professional athletes. However, it should be noted that professional athletes tend to be individuals very well aware of physical health issues and who were extremely physically fit during their careers in sports. Studies on the general population might not yield equal results.

The paper, “The Longitudinal Relationship Between Concussion History, Years of American Football Participation, and Alcohol Use Among Former National Football League Players: an NFL-LONG Study”, was authored by Brittany Lang, Zachary Yukio Kerr, Avinash Chandran, Samuel R. Walton, Rebekah Mannix, Landon B. Lempke, J. D. DeFreese, Ruben J. Echemendia, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, William P. Meehan III, Michael A. McCrea, and Benjamin L. Brett.

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