Thank you Bubba Smith, Brandi Chastain, and Dave Mirra for adding to our knowledge about concussions and the potential long-term effects of head injuries and concussions.
Bubba Smith was a fearsome defensive end who starred in the NFL, and went on to have a successful career in Hollywood. Known for his Miller Beer ads (“tastes great – less filling”), Smith was also famous for ripping the front seat out of a compact car in the first Police Academy movie so he could fit in his 6’7” in and drive from the back seat.
Smith died a few years ago at the age of 66, and donated his brain to science. Recently it was just discovered that he, along with many other former football players, had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). According to the report, Smith had suffered significant cognitive decline, including memory impairment and poor judgment. He was also unable to complete many tasks of daily living on his own, such as paying bills, shopping, or traveling.” His diagnosis was stage 3 out of a possible 4.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that is often found in boxers, football players and extreme and/or contact-sport athletes, as well as military veterans who have endured repetitive explosions. Symptoms include memory problems, confusion, depression, aggression and/or erratic behavior, and progressive dementia leading to death.
The brain deteriorates over time, losing mass in some areas and swelling in others, accompanied by the accumulation and distortion of “tau” proteins in the brain, interfering with and killing neurons. Like Alzheimer’s, it is a progressive disease that can change a person’s disposition and his or her relationships with others. Although there have been advances in testing for CTE in live patients, the only sure way to diagnose it is to study the brain after death. To date, of the 91 former NFL players whose brains were examined at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank after death, 87 of them showed signs of CTE.
Dave Mirra, a pioneer in Freestyle BMX, was the first rider to land a double backflip on a bicycle. He was only 41 at the time he took his own life, and his wife, Lauren, reported to ESPN that she had started to notice changes in his mood. “And then it quickly started to get worse. He wasn’t able to be present in any situation or conversation, so it was hard to be in a relationship with him to any degree.”
Mirra’s family donated his brain to science after he died, and it showed changes consistent with CTE. While compiling 14 gold medals in the X Games for freestyle BMX, he had sustained multiple direct blows to the head from falls.
Brandi Chastain, a star of the US Women’s Soccer Team, is one of the most successful female soccer players of our time. She has agreed to donate her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation upon her death. Thankfully, she is not reporting any symptoms of CTE at this time, but as a soccer player, she has definitely been at risk for repetitive head injuries.
Science and medicine has learned so much about head injuries, concussions and CTE in recent years, but we still have more to learn. We don’t know why some people develop CTE after repeated blows to the head and some do not, and we can’t yet predict who is at a higher risk for worse symptoms.
The contributions of these athletes and veterans have come at great cost, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to them. Their lives were disrupted, destroyed, and eventually lost, but what we have learned from their suffering will help others who have sustained repetitive head injuries, either from their jobs or their passions.
To learn more about CTE, visit concussionfoundation.org or watch the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith. This recent film blew the lid off the whole discussion of sports and CTE, and put the NFL on the defensive. The more informed you are about the symptoms and impacts of head injuries, the less likely you will be to send an athlete (or yourself) back on the field to “tough it out.”
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