Study: Former NFL Players at High Risk for Depression

According to a University of Texas study, NFL players were more likely to show the physical symptoms of depression.

This is an Oct. 26, 2008, file photo showing Philadelphia Eagles tight end L.J. Smith holding his head after a hard hit by Atlanta Falcons' Lawyer Milloy during the fourth quarter of a football game in Philadelphia. Smith suffered a concussion and Milloy was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty on the play.
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Another study has found that the effects of playing professional football has a negative effect on players' mental health later in life. New research has found that, due to brain damage sustained during their careers, former players are more likely to show symptoms of depression later in life than the general population.

According to the study, which looked at 26 retired NFL players and will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in California in March, those with depression had "impaired white matter integrity" and other brain damage. In a separate study, 34 retired NFL players with a history of concussions were compared with people who did not play and had not sustained concussions.

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"In general, NFL players endorsed more symptoms of depression … compared to controls," the study concluded.

The research comes after other studies have found that former players are more likely to suffer from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, as well as a spate of high-profile suicides by former players who were suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is caused by repeated brain trauma.

According to the study's lead author, Nyaz Didehbani of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, NFL players were more likely to have the physical symptoms of depression rather than mental ones.

"We found more of them feeling fatigued, tired, trouble sleeping, loss of sexual drive," she says. "Most people think if they're depressed, they're sad or cry all the time—that's not true. Some of the symptoms are physical."

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Didehbani says that many of the players were surprised that their symptoms could be connected with depression.

"Many just thought, 'I played pro ball, so this is part of the aging process,'" she says. "They never thought it might be related to a mood disorder."

Some of the players who were diagnosed with clinical depression have been treated with standard antidepressant drugs and responded well, she says.

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"I think the mentality of people in general is that mental health problems are a sign of being weak," she says. "A lot of people live with pain, but it's something that can be treated fairly easily."

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