Traumatic Brain Injury, Depression and Lessons from the NFL

Friday, January 11, 2013

The link between depression and traumatic brain injury (TBI) is taking a prominent position in a national discussion about football.  A much-needed discussion about the relationship between head injuries and depression in general may be a result of this increased scrutiny on the subject.   

A recent medical study found that the NFL players in the research suffered from a far higher rate of depression than people in the general population. The research was published in the journal JAMA Neurology and studied 34 retired NFL players. Researchers found that approximately 25 percent of these players struggled with clinical depression. For people who are not professional football players, the rate of diagnosed clinical depression is about 15 percent.

In addition to the higher rate of depression, the researchers also found that the brains of some of these former players had abnormalities that may be the result of repeated violent impacts. More research on these abnormalities is ongoing but in the wake of the suicide by former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, this subject is sure to get more attention. Some commentators have suggested that Seau's suicide may have been related to depression and traumatic brain injury.  

The recent study may not be damning in the Seau case but it is compelling. Most importantly, perhaps, is the potential significance it has for those of us not colliding into other people at high rates of speed on a daily basis. The players in the study had not been diagnosed with depression until after they agreed to participate in the study, according to a report in Bloomberg News. This may suggest that more players and more people in the general population struggle with depression that has not been diagnosed. Though repeated concussions may be more likely for people who play football throughout their teen and young adult years, people involved in car accidents, cycling crashes, slip and falls, motorcycle collisions and other accidents may also suffer traumatic brain injuries that can lead to clinical depression. Many individuals may be unaware of this possible side effect from such trauma.

The NFL now seems to be paying close attention to the results of head trauma. Perhaps a robust national discussion about brain injuries and depression in the general population will be forthcoming as well.   


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