The degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE, was found in more than 40% of athletes who died before 30, a study out Monday showed, illustrating the growing effects of a disease that has become synonymous with contact sports in recent years.
The study, published in the JAMA Neurology journal, examined 152 donated brains of athletes who were exposed to repetitive head impacts from contact sports and died before 30.
Almost all of the brains examined by researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center showed the earliest stages of CTE, the study found.
While suicide was the most common cause of death among those studied, researchers could not connect the clinical symptoms of depression with the athletes’ CTE, as nearly 70% of the athletes studied reported depression and apathy and 59% of them did not have CTE, researchers said.
Of the 152 donors, all of whom died between 2008 and 2022, 63 were diagnosed with CTE at the time of their death.
Most of the brains studied were those of football players, though researchers also examined ice hockey and soccer players’ brains who played at the youth, high school and college levels.
Researchers discovered the first American woman soccer player, a 28-year-old, to be diagnosed with CTE, in Monday’s study. The finding comes a month after Heather Anderson, a former Australian rules football player, became the first known woman in professional sports to be diagnosed with CTE.
CTE is a head injury common in contact sports. It is known to cause memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. Boston University’s CTE Center noted that “this trauma includes both concussions that cause symptoms and subconcussive hits to the head that cause no symptoms.” For the past 30 years researchers have been looking into the effects of the repeated blows to the head that come with contact sports. And while the disease has been known to affect boxers as far back as the 1920s, it rose to the mainstream in the 2000s, when cases among professional athletes were confirmed. In 2007, the New York Times reported that former football player Andre Waters sustained brain damage from his days as a professional athlete, which led to his depression and ultimately his death by suicide. In 2017, researchers revealed they discovered the first living person to be accurately diagnosed with CTE—Fred McNeill, a former NFL linebacker who played professional football for 12 seasons before retiring in the 1980s and who died in 2015 at age 63. Before McNeill, CTE was only identifiable through a postmortem brain examination.
6.2 million. That’s how many children in the U.S. suffered traumatic brain injuries from sports equipment from 2000 to 2019, according to a study that came out last year.