To assess whether high school football played between 1946 and 1956, when headgear was less protective than today, was associated with development of neurodegenerative diseases later in life.
All male students who played football from 1946 to 1956 in the high schools of Rochester, Minnesota, plus a non–football-playing referent group of male students in the band, glee club, or choir were identified. Using the records-linkage system of the Rochester Epidemiology Project, we reviewed (from October 31, 2010, to March 30, 2011) all available medical records to assess later development of dementia, Parkinson disease (PD), or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). We also compared the frequency of dementia, PD, or ALS with incidence data from the general population of Olmsted County, Minnesota.
We found no increased risk of dementia, PD, or ALS among the 438 football players compared with the 140 non–football-playing male classmates. Parkinson disease and ALS were slightly less frequent in the football group, whereas dementia was slightly more frequent, but not significantly so. When we compared these results with the expected incidence rates in the general population, only PD was significantly increased; however, this was true for both groups, with a larger risk ratio in the non–football group.
Our findings suggest that high school students who played American football from 1946 to 1956 did not have an increased risk of later developing dementia, PD, or ALS compared with non–football-playing high school males, despite poorer equipment and less regard for concussions compared with today and no rules prohibiting head-first tackling (spearing).