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Are hard-hitting athletes at risk for a chronic brain disease?

Are hard-hitting athletes at risk for a chronic brain disease?

This past May, the New York Rangers mourned side-by-side with hockey fans around the country following the loss of National Hockey League enforcer, Derek Boogaard. The body of the 28-year-old NHL player, known for his prowess on the ice, was discovered in his Minneapolis apartment after succumbing to an overdose.

Researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy had a different opinion. Upon gaining permission to examine Boogaard’s brain medical examiners discovered a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE has been seen in athletes involved in other physical sports including football and boxing as well. Though at times this disease presents with symptoms like memory loss, fluctuation in mood, addiction, and impulsiveness, this silent killer only reveals itself posthumously.

The amount of brain damage that doctors uncovered was particularly jarring considering the caliber of athlete Boogaard was. “To see this amount? That’s a ‘wow’ moment,” said Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and a co-director of the center, in a statement.

Researchers at Boston University have found CTE in the brains of a total of four former hockey players including Reggie Fleming, who died at 73; Rick Martin, 59; and Bob Probert, age 45. The National Hockey League, however, is still not convinced there is a connection between the hard-hitting action on the ice and this fatal brain disease.

“There isn’t a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it’s way premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said, in a statement. “Because we’re not sure that any, based on the data we have available, is valid.”

Dr. McKee has examined almost 80 brains of former athletes of contact sports and believes that their work at the center could help save current athletes that have developed the disease and may not be aware of their affliction. Though, in the midst of a roaring crowd, overlooking players fighting on the ice it’s hard to predict what the future holds for athletes at risk.

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