by Dr. Rolf Gainer
The brain of an athlete who committed suicide has provided a vital link to understanding that brain injury caused by multiple concussions will account for later brain degeneration. In November 2006 Andre Waters, 44, a former National Football League player, committed suicide. His death lead Chris Nowinski a former Harvard football player and later professional wrestler to ask Ms. Sandra Pinkney, Mr. Water’s sister, to allow scientists to examine Andre Waters’ brain. Ms. Pinkney mulled over Mr. Nowinski’s unusual request and consented with the understanding that their cooperation could help other players avoid the tragedy that Mr. Waters experienced.
Mr. Nowinski, who experienced repeated concussions which ended his career and caused severe migraines and depression, believed that the examination of Mr. Waters’ brain would link his suicide to the numerous concussions he experienced as a professional athlete. Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading forensic pathologist concluded that “Mr. Waters’ brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85 year old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims.”
Dr. Omalu went on to say that had Mr. Waters lived another ten to fifteen years he would have been totally incapacitated. Dr. Omalu had previously examined the brains of two former Pittsburgh Steelers who were found to have post-concussive brain injuries: Mike Webster, who became homeless and cognitively impaired prior to his death from heart failure in 2002 and Terry Long who committed suicide in 2005.Other retired players have reported depression, memory problems and even thoughts of suicide.
Research into more than 2,500 former NFL players by Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s like symptoms and depression rose proportionately to the number of concussions sustained by the athlete. Athletes who experienced three or more concussions were three times more likely to experience significant memory problems and five times more likely to develop earlier onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
An interview with Mr. Waters in 1994 indicated that he “lost count at 15″ when asked about his multiple concussive injuries. In 1991 Mr. Waters experienced a seizure which was later portrayed as ‘a body cramp”. He continued to play football. While the NFL brain injury experts debate the findings of the study and point to flaws they perceived in the study as well a number of retired players who have not developed the degenerative symptoms, the real facts are compelling and certainly require further examination.
Over recent years, the Brain Injury Association and the state brain injury chapters have teamed with high school and college coaches to provide training to recognize the signs of concussion and remove players from the game and even bring them to medical professionals for further examination.If we recognize that repeated concussion is the cause of brain injury for high school and college players, why won’t the experts who work with professional athletes heed the same advice.