Professional hockey player Derek Boogaard was one of the youngest known athletes to be affected. After having suffered symptoms for years, Boogaard died of a drug overdose at 28. An autopsy revealed that CTE had been the cause of his neurological problems.
Brain traumas, especially chronic injuries such as those sustained in sports can, over time, lead to irreversible brain damage. There is just so much jarring and shaking the brain can take. The difficulty is that the most serious, long-term symptoms often don't show up until later in life, but clearly CTE can develop at almost any age. Here, we'll discuss the symptoms, brain changes, and prevention of CTE in athletes and in all of us.
THE SYMPTOMS OF CTE
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy affects many areas of a person's functioning, including mood, emotional regulation, cognitive capacity, memory, and personality. It often doesn't develop for years after the traumas occurred, and can present with a different constellation of symptoms in each person it affects.
Its prevalence in boxers continues. One recent review study of athletes who were diagnosed with CTE found that of the 51 confirmed cases of CTE 46 were in athletes -- and of these, 39 were boxers. Five football players, a soccer player, and a wrestler made up the remainder of the athletes affected by chronic brain trauma.
The most common initial symptoms of CTE are a variety of psychological and behavioral changes. Some experts have suggested that there are actually three phases of the disease. The first includes problems with attention, concentration, memory, and confusion; the second stage may bring with it more exaggerated behavioral symptoms like changes in social behavior, erratic behavior, and problems with judgment. Finally, the third stage can carry more severe cognitive deficits, full-blown dementia, and Parkinsonism.
Two Case Studies
A classic example is that of a retired NFL football player (all study subjects are anonymous), who started showing symptoms at age 40, when his family "began to notice minor impairments in his short-term memory, attention, concentration, organization, planning, problem solving, judgment, and ability to juggle more than one task at a time." His memory also suffered. He "repeatedly asked the same questions over and over, he did not recall why he went to the store unless he had a list, and he would ask to rent a movie that he had already seen."
Another CTE sufferer was a boxer whose short career began at 17 and ended at 22. He'd had an unrelated head injury in his teens. He started having problems with memory in his mid-20s, and in the next decade he had occasional falls and problems with confusion. His symptoms remained fairly steady for the next several decades, but they became more pronounced at the end of his life, at the age of 80.