Ex-football players prone to late-life mental health problems

Ex-football players prone to late-life mental health problems

By Liz Lockhart

Mental Healthy published an article on the mental health of athletes during their careers, but now a new study suggests that former football players are prone to late-life health problems.

Throughout their careers, football players experience repeated head trauma which results in both short and long-term effects to their physical and mental health, and to their cognitive function.

The study ‘Effects of Current Exercise and Diet on Late-Life Cognitive Health of Former College Football Players,’ is published in the journal Physician and Sports Medicine.  Pam Hinton is the director of graduate studies for the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. 

In the study, the researchers found that former football players develop more late-life cognitive difficulties and poorer physical and mental health than other ex-athletes and people who were never played sports.  Former football players who ate high-fat diets also had greater cognitive difficulties with remembering information, orientation and engaging and applying ideas.  Frequent exercise was, however, associated with higher levels of both physical and mental health.

‘While the negative effects of repeated collisions can’t be completely reversed, this study suggests that former athletes can alter their lifestyle behaviours to change the progression of cognitive decline,’ said Hinton.  ‘Even years after they’re done playing sports, athletes can improve their diet and exercise habits to improve their mental and physical health.’

Hinton compared former collision sport players (footballers) to former non-collision-sportsmen and non-athletes.  Questionnaires were given to participants to assess their cognitive, mental and physical health.  The researchers then examines how the players’ present lifestyle negatively or positively impacted on their collision-related problems.  It was found that former football players who consumed more total and saturated fat and cholesterol had more cognitive difficulties than those who had a better diet and ate less fat.

Hinton said ‘Football will always be around, so it's impossible to eliminate head injuries; however, we can identify ways to reduce the detrimental health effects of repeated head trauma.  It's important to educate athletes and people who work with athletes about the benefits of low-fat and balanced diets to help players improve their health both while playing sports and later in life. It's a simple, but not an easy thing to do."

The researchers plan a future study in which they will increase the sample size.  They also want to have the participants perform tests to measure their cognitive functioning rather than using self-reported measures. 

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