The study, led by Mass General Brigham investigators from McLean Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, compared former players against men of the same age and found that players who had concussions during their NFL careers scored worse on assessments of episodic memory, sustained attention, processing speed and vocabulary.
The study required 353 former players — who had on average retired from the NFL 29 years ago — to complete hour-long online tests. Concussion information and details about players' symptoms was self-reported. Researchers then compared the players' test scores to the scores of 5,000 male volunteers who did not play football.
Part of the reason younger players studied may have less damage than the older players, Germine said, is the changes made in the sport and the more protective equipment and gear that younger players may have worn while playing.
Germine said that while the NFL has made strides to reduce concussions and educate players, there still needs to be more work done to limit the risks. Other factors, like years of play or age of first football exposure, were not found to have an impact on cognitive performance.
Germine said that the league should emphasize detecting a head impact at the time of a concussion, track symptoms, and if a player has multiple concussions, they should be treated in conjunction with each other, not as separate medical events.
Teams and medical staff should be "making sure that players are well-educated in ... the long-term differences that are associated with brain injury and with concussions, so that it's not just about this game, this moment, but about it as something that one needs to do to maintain one's healthy functioning and brain health in the long term," Germine said.