NeuroScene

“Dementia of Football”: The Next Major Public Health Issue?

On September 24, 2002, Pro Football Hall of Fame center Michael Lewis Webster died in Allegheny General Hospital’s coronary care unit at age 50.  Known as “Iron Mike” during his playing years, Webster’s discipline and overachieving nature helped propel the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl championships.  But soon after retiring in 1990, Webster’s life became plagued by debt, depression, family turmoil, and eventually homelessness.

Through an entirely serendipitous set of circumstances, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu had an opportunity to conduct an extensive examination of Mike Webster’s brain shortly after his death.  What Dr. Omalu found was astonishing.  While Mike Webster’s brain did not show any outward physical signs of dementia, at a cellular level his brain resembled that of an 80-year-old advanced dementia patient.

Over the next 5 years, Dr. Omalu conducted post-mortem tests on additional former pro football players, and he began to notice an emerging pattern which seemed to indicate an entirely different form of progressive chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  Termed “Dementia of Football,” this syndrome was very different from dementia pugilistica, or the boxers’ “punch-drunk syndrome.”  In contrast, “Dementia of Football” tended to occur without the presence of any motor symptoms – which would explain why it would often be misdiagnosed or completely overlooked.

Join us in this fascinating conversation with Dr. Omalu where we discuss this newly emerging syndrome in detail and ponder what could very well be one of the next major public health issues to affect athletes – both amateur and professional – worldwide.

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