NFL star Frank Gifford’s family has said he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a progressive brain disease that has been linked to the types of brain injuries and head trauma common in football.
Gifford’s family said he passed away from natural causes at the age of 84, but that they suspected he was suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma.
Their fears were confirmed when a team of pathologists recently diagnosed Gifford’s condition.
His family said they made the decision to have Gifford’s brain studied with the hope of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury.
The family also announced they wanted to make this diagnosis public to honor Gifford’s commitment to promoting player safety.
It is important to note that CTE can be diagnosed only after an individual’s death.
Football and CTE
Gifford’s diagnosis comes at a time when there is growing focus on the risks athletes, especially football players, face from suffering repeated concussions. It also comes hours after the NFL admitted its concussion protocols failed when St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum kept playing even after his head slammed into the field.
The brain tissue of people with CTE shows an abnormal buildup of tau, a type of protein. When this protein spills out of cells, it can disable neural pathways controlling memory, judgment and fear. Many NFL players have been diagnosed posthumously with CTE.
According to results of a recent study, 87 out of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science after death tested positive for CTE.
Also, in April, NFL settled a lawsuit with thousands of former players. Under this settlement each retired player will get about $5 million for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.
There is no treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as CTE. However, there are ways to prevent this disease. The key to prevention is to reduce mild traumatic brain injuries and to prevent additional injury after a concussion.
For athletes involved in contact sports such as football, sports-specific helmets can help reduce injury. That said, helmets alone cannot eliminate the occurrence of concussions.
Coaches and players must be familiar with current guidelines for sports-related injuries. They should certainly err on the side of caution by keeping injured athletes out of the game.
An athlete who has suffered a concussion should undergo a thorough health evaluation by a healthcare professional, and should be kept out of the game until his or her doctor approves a return.