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A UTSW study wants to look at impact of college sports in older adults and their brain wellness

Human brain scan testing film folded in a roll.
Information and misinformation about potential long-term effects of concussion helped prompt the study.

In 2022, UT Southwestern Medical Center's O’Donnell Brain Institute began studying how college sports and resulting sports-related concussions might impact brain wellness later in life.

KERA’s Sam Baker talked about preliminary findings from phase one with one of the principal investigators, Dr. C. Munro Cullum, a Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Neurological Surgery at U-T Southwestern Medical Center.

Is this study the latest step in your ongoing research or did something specific prompt it?

Some of the things that prompted this research are information and misinformation out in the media about long-term or potential long-term effects of concussion. And we wanted to dive into this and, try to help set the record straight and learn more about brain health in aged individuals, who may have had concussions earlier in life.

What type of misinformation, for instance?

Well, there's a lot of talk and concern about the condition called, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. With reports of some former NFL players turning up with this, abnormal pathology in their brains. And some of the researchers ascribing that to a history of concussion and or repetitive head hits.

There's not a lot known about that condition. It does get media attention, in terms of people even talking about a clinical diagnosis of CTE. But there really isn't. There's not a formal clinical diagnosis. It's really a pathological diagnosis.

So the term is kind of being misused. And yet, it's on a lot of people's minds. It's on a lot of the minds of parents, of, kids. And yet, in fact, it's a very rare condition. So we think the story's a little overstated.

The goal for this study was 500 participants over 50. Which I understand you far surpassed. Now did that level of willingness surprise you?

There are a lot of people very, or becoming more, concerned about brain wellness in general, right, with health and, you know, doing things that are good for the heart and exercise and whatnot.

But also, it does reflect upon the concerns, I think, that people have after concussion. And there's a lot of concerns about, you know, what might the implications be if your child has a concussion? What are the implications decades later or for our aging population? Looking back. Did those concussions I had years ago, might those be affecting me?

And that's what your study is trying to find out, right?

Yes. we're looking at both athletes and non-athletes at this point, who are over age 50 and who did or did not have a prior history of concussions.

So one of the areas that's really understudied is aging female athletes with and without a history of concussion related to sport. We just don't know as much about the female aging brain with respect to concussion, and what factors contribute to, quality of life, mental health, and cognitive status later in life.

Preliminary findings from the first phase found about a quarter of former female athletes had some level of concern about later-in-life cognitive issues.

It was about what we expected, I would say, based on, some other surveys, although we really didn't know whether the concern would be higher or lower in women because of the reports of CTE being vastly represented by males, dominated by male brain collections with very few females, to date. So I guess it was a little surprising that a fourth expressed that concern.

You've just completed the first phase of the study. You're moving into the second. But what should we take from what we know so far?

Well, so far, our data suggests that most former athletes, whether they've had concussions or not, seem to be doing well later in life. They don't seem to have any higher, problems with, reported symptoms of, you know, memory loss, or, cognitive problems.

We're going to look at the data with respect to symptoms of anxiety, depression, other quality of life, and kind of brain wellness measures. But, we haven't looked at the data along those lines, but we will be exploring the male versus female differences. We'll be looking at the length of participation in sports, the age at which they started playing, the number of concussions, number of active years playing. And then we'll be looking at it by sport as well.


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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.