By Selina Dudley
WASHINGTON—Getting tackled or knocked in the head may be common for student athletes, but researchers have linked head trauma among athletes to a developing disease.
Researchers at the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) say young athletes are particularly vulnerable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease brought on by repetitive head trauma, specifically concussions. Lasting affects of the disease are memory loss, impaired judgment, and progressive dementia.
“The growing number in findings of CTE in athletes confirm the need for a large-scale study of CTE in athletes who participate in contact sports,” said SLI Founder Chris Nowinski, a former college wrestler, who sustained and struggled with more than 10 concussions.
Nowinski said the disease is particularly troubling because it can go undetected for so long. Professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who was diagnosed with CTE following his suicide in 2007.
The Sports Legacy Institute studied the brains of four NFL players who committed suicide; the study determined that the players’ had symptoms of dementia similar to that of Alzheimer’s disease.
Although most cases have been formally discovered in professional athletes, that does not limit its victims to those in the professional sports realm. According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, collegiate and high school athletes can develop the condition if they have experienced adequate head trauma.
The lack of awareness and education on concussions, according to SLI, is allowing the disease to proliferate, and high school athletes are well at risk.
According to researchers, Benoit demonstrated major characteristics of the disease. Seemingly happy dispositions turned sour, severe depression, and ultimately suicide.
Still, student athletes remain largely unaware of the disease.
Deion Wellington, a 17-year-old senior, and football player at the Landon School, a private school in Bethesda, Md. seemed surprised when he explained that he was unfamiliar with CTE.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 7, never suffered a concussion, but I never would have thought that repetitive concussions could cause permanent damage to the brain,” he said.
Taylor Greene, a varsity wrestler at the Landon School, said he has only had two concussions.
“Well, anytime I’ve had a concussion I tend to just brush it off and get back to wrestling. If you take too many days off you could fall off—I don’t want that to happen. I didn’t know there was a serious disease that could happen because of concussions, but maybe now I’ll be more careful,” Greene said.
In order to raise awareness of CTE, Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu founded the Sports Legacy Institute in 2007 in Boston. It was established in reaction to new medical research, which indicated that brain trauma in sports, had become a serious, public health crisis.
SLI will be visiting high schools in the D.C. area, addressing students and faculty to talk about concussion prevention. The goal is to solve the concussion crisis by means of medical research, treatment, and education, said Nowinski.
Nowinski said he felt like he dodged a bullet as a student athlete when he decided to quit after experiencing memory loss.