Do Concussions Lead to Depression?

Retired NFL players offer insights about the brain

football player in locker room

Playing in the National Football League may offer glory and fame, but as players age, they may also experience some negative brain-related side effects. Repeated concussions may be tied to depression, a study finds.

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The two-year study followed 34 ex-players with an average age of 62. Researchers found a high correlation between the history of concussion and its negative effects on the cognitive aspects of depression, according to psychologist Michael McKee, PhD. Dr. McKee did not participate in the study.

NFL players’ risks significantly greater

University of Texas researchers compared the following groups:

  • NFL players with memory problems and depression
  • Cognitively normal retired players who were not depressed
  • Healthy control study participants

About 24 percent of the players were diagnosed with depression. Researchers found significant differences in white matter abnormalities in cognitively impaired and depressed retired players.

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What does white matter do? According to Dr. McKee, white matter transfers messages from one part of the brain to another. “If you’re trying to remember something — like trying to get a name to come to you if you meet someone —that part of the brain needs to be working well,” he says.

Multiple concussions increase future risk

Researchers say more studies are needed, but some NFL players may be more likely to develop depression as they age, or they may have problems with memory, naming and word finding than the general population.

Dr. McKee says it appears multiple concussions may increase the risk of depression and the other components of cognitive impairment.

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Test scores and Alzheimer’s disease

“The guys who had depression had worse scores on all three components — memory, naming and word finding — suggesting that this is a long-term risk,” says Dr. McKee.

The study’s senior author suggested the implications could go beyond the football field into the areas of aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

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