Alzheimer's and the NFL

By Allan Vann, Huffington Post, September 1, 2015

This is an open letter to NFL Commissioner Goodell, team owners, and players:

As another season of the National Football League (NFL) season is about to begin, I would like to suggest an easy way for the NFL to demonstrate its concern for player safety that would, at the same time, make a significant contribution towards improving the lives of millions of people in our country and around the world. My suggestion is that the NFL publicly support Alzheimer's disease awareness each November in much the same manner as the NFL already currently supports breast cancer awareness each October.

In September 2012, the federal Centers for Disease Control issued a study of nearly 3,500 NFL retirees concluding that "NFL players are three times as likely as the general population to die from a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease." In response, the NFL pledged $30 million for medical research to help learn more about this connection. I applaud that effort. A study reported in December 2012 by Boston University researchers also noted long-term negative effects of concussions and brain injury. In March of 2013, the NFL announced a joint venture with General Electric and the Under Armour Corp. to invest another $40 million for research on concussions and brain injuries. I applaud that effort as well.

In 2014, the NFL released actuarial data in a federal lawsuit initiated by ex-players seeking compensation due to concussions they suffered while playing. According to the NFL's actuary, "players between ages 20 to 60 are particularly vulnerable" and "former players between ages 50-59 develop Alzheimer's disease and dementia at rates 14 to 23 percent higher than the general population." The NFL responded by investing even more money into research on the brain, implementing new rules to try to increase player safety, and developing new procedures to insure that players with concussions remain off the field until medically cleared to play. I also applaud those efforts by the NFL.

The NFL deserves praise for its research pledges and continuing efforts to reduce serious head injuries. But one way for the NFL to really bring attention to neurodegenerative diseases would be to use its broadcasts as a "bully pulpit" to educate the public about Alzheimer's disease, and to encourage funding to help find ways to prevent, treat, and finally cure Alzheimer's disease.

Each October since 1985 our country has celebrated National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. When I watch NFL games in October, I routinely hear announcers reading promotional material encouraging greater cancer awareness and donations for cancer research. Players show their support by wearing pink as part of their uniforms, and some referees even use pink penalty flags. According to the American Cancer Society 2015 Report, the overall death rate for all cancers has dropped by 22 percent during the last 20 years. That is wonderful news, and one of the reasons given for this decline in cancer death rates is the improvement in early detection and treatment.

Given that in 2014, "34 of the 35 most watched fall TV shows in America were NFL games," the NFL can take great pride in its role in publicizing breast cancer awareness and contributing to public awareness of the importance of early detection and treatment.

In 1983, when fewer than 2 million Americans were suffering from Alzheimer's disease, President Reagan issued a proclamation declaring November as National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month. Now, according to the latest Alzheimer's Association Report, more than 5 million Americans, including 250,000 under the age of 65, have this disease, and death rates for Alzheimer's have risen nearly 70 percent since 2000.

Cancer is a horrible disease. My mother died of cancer. I have two nieces, one a cancer survivor and one with a young son who is a cancer survivor. I want NFL players to continue wearing pink and I want NFL announcers to continue promoting cancer awareness and research every October. This is a wonderful and noble service.

But Alzheimer's is also a horrible disease. My wife has Alzheimer's. I have friends whose spouses have Alzheimer's. Given research indicating a possible link between football head injuries and Alzheimer's, one would think that the NFL would want to promote Alzheimer's Awareness Month each November. NFL broadcasts could highlight the early warning signs of Alzheimer's, encourage medical screenings, and encourage donations for Alzheimer's research. I would think that the NFL commissioner, owners, and players would want to show their support for Alzheimer's awareness and research by wearing purple.

Pink is a beautiful color... but so is purple.