TUESDAY, Jan. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Retired National Football
League players who pack on the pounds may not be as sharp later in
life as their counterparts who maintain a healthy weight, a new
Previous research has found that pro football players are
already at risk for cognitive problems, including dementia, due to
repeated head trauma during their on-the-field years.
The new study, published in the Jan. 17 online issue of
Translational Psychiatry, evaluates how their weight may affect brain health.
"The overweight group had significantly less activity and mental acuity," said study co-author Dr. Daniel Amen, medical director of Amen Clinics, in Newport Beach, Calif.
Amen and his colleagues recruited former NFL players between the
ages of 25 and 82 for their study. Most of the study participants
were middle-aged. Each had been on an active NFL roster for at
least three years. To learn more about the relationship between
their weight and brain health, the scientists compared 38
healthy-weight and 38 overweight players.
The participants met with a doctor and answered questions about
their health history, and their weight and waistlines were
measured. They were also given a series of cognitive tests
measuring a range of brain functions, including memory, how fast
they processed material, attention and reasoning.
Each participant also underwent brain scans -- single-photon
emission computed tomography (SPECT) -- to measure blood flow to
the brain. Amen said heavier athletes were more likely to have
poorer blood flow in the temporal and prefrontal cortex regions,
which are areas of the brain involving attention, reasoning and
executive function. Poorer results on cognitive tests corresponded
to poorer blood flow in the higher-weight patients, too, he
Amen said he was also concerned by the amount of depression
reported by the athletes. "The levels of depression, dementia and
obesity really shocked us and they all worked together," he
Dr. Ausim Azizi, chair of the department of neurology at Temple
School of Medicine, in Philadelphia, called the new research a
well-designed study. But he wonders if weight gain was the cause of
increased cognitive decline, or if head injuries incurred during
the players' careers led to poorer decision-making about diet and
health, which, in turn, led to weight increase.
"Was the weight gain a cause or an effect of brain injury?" Azizi asked.
Either way, being overweight is concerning, he said, because it
can lead to or exacerbate other health problems, including high
blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, both linked to cognitive
"Being overweight is an index of other diseases," Azizi said.
Neuropsychologist Summer Ott, co-director of the Methodist
Concussion Center in Houston, said that while the study suggests
weight gain may be linked to cognitive problems in later life, she
believes many factors are at play in the retired athletes and they
need to be addressed.
"We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket and say cognitive decline is all due to head injury and obesity," said Ott, who has worked with athletes.
She said a multifaceted approach to brain health -- including
management of head injury early in a player's career and then
access to health resources after retirement -- would benefit the
"When they quit their sport, a weight-management program coupled with psychotherapy and resilience training would help," Ott said. "What I believe is happening, especially with those who retire early, is that a significant change in their identity occurs. It's sort of like those in the military. The players are coming back and reintegrating into a whole new environment. They aren't with their guys anymore. They've put all emphasis into being a professional athlete and haven't really prepared for the world after athletics."
While the new study only reported on weight, Amen believes a
support system that helps retired players stay slim would go a long
way toward their physical and mental health. "I think of
depression, obesity and dementia as different expressions of the
same lifestyle," he said.
For more on the health risks of obesity, visit the office of the
U.S. Surgeon General.