Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Retired NFL Players Suffer From Higher Rates of Cognitive Impairment

As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, an NFL commissioned study finds that "Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49." Over 1,000 former players were interviewed for the study. The results are significant because the NFL commissioned the study. Previous studies which suggested that retired NFL players suffered from high rates of brain function impairment were downplayed by the NFL. Now, the NFL's own study reveals much higher than expected rates of cognitive impairment in former players compared to men in the general population of a similar age.

The NFL and NFL Players Association offer the "88 Plan" to retired players who have Alzheimers, dementia or similar conditions. That plan reimburses players for up to $88,000 of expenses per year for the services needed to care for the player. But the NFL study tees up the issue of whether a former player with cognitive impairment will qualify for disability benefits from the NFL Player Retirement Plan.

A key point from the study is that the cognitive impairment is occurring at a relatively young age. Any retired player suffering from such an impairment would have a diminished ability to work productively, perhaps enough to render him totally disabled. The NFL's disability plan has different levels of disability benefits, but for a player that becomes disabled after finishing his career, the benefit level with the highest monthly payment is the "football degenerative" benefit. (The plan pays $110,000 per year to players who qualify for "football degenerative" benefits.) The plan, however, limits eligibility for the "football degenerative" benefit to former players who are under 45 or who are less than 15 years from the end of their NFL careers (whichever is later). According to the NYT article, the NFL study found:

A normal rate of cognitive disease among N.F.L. retirees age 50 and above (of whom there are about 4,000) would result in 48 of them having the condition; the rate in the Michigan study would lead to 244. Among retirees ages 30 through 49 (of whom there are about 3,000), the normal rate cited by the Michigan researchers would yield about 3 men experiencing problems; the rate reported among N.F.L. retirees leads to an estimate of 57.
Both population groups (30-49 and 50+) showed abnormal rates of cognitive impairment, but it seems that most of the players suffering from these conditions are older than 45. Players who became disabled because of a cognitive impairment after age 45 would be ineligible for the "football degenerative" benefit unless they were still within 15 years of their last season. There are not that many players who are still playing beyond age 31 or 32, however.

Representatives of the NFL and the NFL Players Association are currently meeting to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement. This NFL study should prompt both sides to consider revising the disability plan to make sure that players with cognitive impairments at any age can qualify for "football degenerative" benefits.

The NYT article is here.