2006 Pro Bowl tackle.jpg
Source: Public Domain File:2006 Pro Bowl tackle.jpg

The former New England Patriots tight end, the late Aaron Hernandez, appears to have made tragic choices. The young man went from All-American in college to the National Football League in 2010. By 2013, he was found guilty of murder and this week his death in prison was ruled a suicide on April 20th. His attorney has questioned the ruling. And his family has asked that his brain be sent to a group at Boston University that studies the brains of football players—many of whom have made bad decisions, suffered from dementia, and committed suicide. Could repetitive head injuries have played a role in the behavior of Aaron Hernandez, who was cleared of a double murder on April 15?

Ann McKee, M.D. is director of the Boston University Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Researchers that have pointed out that “changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.”

Dr. McKee explained to me during an earlier interview on teens and football:

“In autopsies of some teens who played high-school football, we found early changes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain—similar to the more advanced stages found in older players.”

The center’s autopsies show such changes in the brain as tau protein deposits and neurofibrillary tangles consistent with brain injuries. According to the CTE:

“The physical symptoms associated with brain degeneration include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.”

The National Football League was sued by thousands of former players in a class action concussion lawsuit, which the NFL settled regarding brain injuries.

In a review article by E.J. Lehman on the "Epidemiology of neurodegeneration in American-style professional football players" in 2013, Alzheimers Research Therapy, it was pointed out that:

"Although the results of the studies reviewed do not establish a cause effect relationship between football-related head injury and neurodegenerative disorders, a growing body of research supports the hypothesis that professional football players are at an increased risk of neurodegeneration."

In study published in Neurology that included 3,439 former NFL players with an average age of 57, researchers determined that professional football players were three times more likely to die as a result of diseases that damage brain cells than the general population.

The case of Hernandez is tragic in many ways—for him, the family of his victim, his own family, his young daughter and her mother. For people sympathetic to Hernandez, a diagnosis of a brain injury due to playing football might come as a relief and provide greater insight into his apparent suicide. Whether or not the brain center will confirm that this was the case with Hernandez, is uncertain. But once again, a former football player is bringing to the news the potential danger to all football players, professional as well as young athletes.

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Everett J. Lehman, MS,  et al. "Epidemiology of neurodegeneration in American-style professional football players." Alzheimers Res Ther. 2013; 5(4): 34. Published online 2013 Jul 22. 

Everett J. Lehman, MS, et al. "Neurodegenerative causes of death among retired National Football League players." Neurology 2012, Published online before print 2012 Sept 5. 

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