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Brain Food: Former football players are prone to cognitive difficulties. Eating better may help.

ACCORDING TO ESTIMATES compiled by the University of North Carolina-based National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, some 300,000 football players in the United States suffer a concussion each year. For many of these players, particularly those competing at the college and professional levels, their most recent concussion was not their first.

The effects, both long-term and short, of these repeated blows to the head are gradually becoming better understood. The news is not good. Former football players experience more late-life cognitive problems and worse physical and mental health than other former athletes and non-athletes.

Now a new study by MU’s Pamela Hinton, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology, suggests that another factor may be involved in producing these ill effects: poor diet choices.

“Among former football players, greater intake of total and saturated fat and cholesterol and lower overall diet quality were significantly correlated with cognitive difficulties,” Hinton and her research collaborators wrote in the October 2011 edition of the journal Physician and Sports Medicine. “Current dietary intake was not associated with cognitive health for the noncollision-sport athletes or nonathletes.”

The finding came after an evaluation of survey results from 400 former college athletes, some of whom participated in so-called collision sports — in this case, football — and others who did not. A control group of non-athletes was also included. Study participants answered questions designed to allow Hinton to assess participants’ demographic and physical characteristics, amount of exercise, type of diet, levels of any cognitive difficulties, and overall physical and mental health.

While not definitive — Hinton says more research on a larger group is needed — the results tended to confirm previous warnings related to collision sports: football players are indeed at greater risk for late-life cognitive difficulties than other athletes or non-athletes. Still, Hinton adds, the study’s nutrition findings do offer at least a ray of hope for those collision-sport athletes who fear their gridiron glory may have come at a terrible price.

“Football will always be around, so it’s impossible to eliminate head injuries; however, we can identify ways to reduce the detrimental health effects of repeated head trauma,” Hinton says.

“It’s important to educate athletes and people who work with athletes about the benefits of low-fat and balanced diets to help players improve their health, both while playing sports and later in life. It’s simple, but not an easy thing to do.”

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Eat to Win: Athletes participating in "collision sports" show a greater risk for cognitive decline, especially those with poor diets. Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

Eat to Win Athletes participating in "collision sports" show a greater risk for cognitive decline, especially those with poor diets. Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

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