Ever wondered what happens to your favorite footballer, boxer, wrestler or mixed martial arts fighter at the end of their careers? It turns out all the blows to the head sustained by such athletes during the course of their sports careers can lead to a crippling condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (Cte).

A recent study uncovered that athletes, particularly Football Players who have sustained head trauma, are highly susceptible to CTE. The study relied on a sample of 202 deceased players of American football obtained from a brain donation program.

When sport poses a health hazard

A team from the Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System documented the behavioral, mood, and mental problems encountered by those afflicted with mild and severe CTE. One of the insights gleaned from the study is that the signs of dementia were common among those with a severe case of CTE.

The disorder has also been linked to depression. Other factors associated with CTE risk and disease severity were the age at first exposure to football, duration of play, the player’s position, cumulative hits, plus the linear and rotational acceleration of hits.

From a medical perspective, a key indicator of CTE is the buildup of the abnormal protein called tau that tends to strangle brain cells specifically areas that control memory, emotions and related functions.

Autopsies of some former NFL players, including Hall of Famer Mike Webster and All-Pro Junior Seau, were found to have cellular changes consistent with CTE in their brain.

CTE seen in living ex-players

Recently, doctors made a breakthrough in being able to discover the telltale signs of the degenerative disease in living former players.

Among the football legends diagnosed with CTE are Leonard Marshall, a former National Football League All-Pro; Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure, who are professional football Hall of Famers.

Boston University Neuroscientist Dr. Ann McKee noted that many questions have yet to be answered, including the prevalence among football players and the general population.

The recent study and developments bring attention to one reality – that engaging in combat sports can take a toll on the body, including brain functioning. It also offers some explanation for CTE-related cognitive and emotional troubles athletes eventually face. Punishing blows to the head may cause irreparable neurological harm.