Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The NFL and Alzheimer's - Go Purple

(Note: This article was originally titled, "The NFL and Alzheimer's ... Pink and Purple")

A 2012 study of nearly 3500 former National Football League (NFL) players concluded that ex-NFL players were three times as likely as the general population to die from a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. Two studies published in 2013 concluded that even one concussion can cause degenerative brain changes similar to those with Alzheimer’s.  

Aware of the links between concussions and Alzheimer’s, the NFL has adopted stronger rules to help minimize head injuries, and in 2012 donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in part to research “the potential relationship between traumatic brain injury and later life neurodegenerative disorders, especially Alzheimer’s disease.” In 2013, the NFL announced a $60 million partnership with General Electric Co., in part to research brain injuries. 

And now comes news of a $765 million dollar settlement between the NFL and more than 4500 retirees and families of players who have died of diseases they claimed were due to head trauma. One former NFL player noted that the lawsuit was never intended to harm the NFL, but that former players “wanted to raise awareness about their injuries.”

In 1983 when President Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, fewer than 2 million Americans had Alzheimer’s. Today more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. Without a medical breakthrough, those numbers are expected to rise to more than 7 million by 2025 and more than 14 million by 2050. 

Already our 6th leading cause of death, Alzheimer’s is the only disease among the top ten killers in the U.S. with no effective means of prevention, treatment, or cure, and deaths due to Alzheimer’s have increased 68% between 2000 – 2010. Care for people with Alzheimer’s costs our nation more than $200 billion each year, with $140 billion of that amount paid by Medicare and Medicaid. Projected annual costs are expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2050. 

The most watched TV programs each year are NFL games and such large audiences give the NFL a tremendous opportunity to use its broadcasts for public service. To their credit, since 2009 the NFL has used October broadcasts to support breast cancer awareness and help raise money for research. Football players show their support by wearing pink on their uniforms and using pink equipment. Having lost my mother to cancer, and with relatives currently dealing with cancer, I applaud this NFL leadership role and enjoy seeing lots of pink on my TV screen in October.

Another opportunity for leadership would be for the NFL to dedicate November broadcasts to Alzheimer’s awareness. Aside from raising money for Alzheimer’s research, such attention would help more people recognize possible Alzheimer’s symptoms that they or their loved ones are experiencing so they can follow up with their doctors. And more people caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s could learn about additional resources to help them as caregivers. Football players would undoubtedly agree to show their support for Alzheimer’s awareness by wearing purple on their uniforms and using purple equipment.

NFL Commissioner Goodell once said, “A lot of times, you know the right thing to do. But you have to have the courage to do it.” Using NFL broadcasts to promote Alzheimer’s awareness and research is the right thing to do.

Pink is a beautiful color. So is purple.

Published as a guest column on the "by 2020" blog of USAgainstAlzheimer's website, October 29, 2013.  Access at:

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