Study: Playing contact sports significantly increases risk of Lewy body disease, Parkinson’s

BOSTON — As new research continues to shed light on the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), particularly at a young age, contact sports remain a source of controversy for many parents and educators who fear the sports may be putting children at harm. Now a new study finds that contact sport athletes are at greater risk of suffering from Lewy Body Disease (LBD), which can lead to Parkinson’s disease.

It was once thought, since the discovery of CTE-like symptoms being noticed in boxers as early as the 1920s, that tremors, difficulty walking, and excessive slowness were all symptoms of CTE or a similar neurodegenerative affliction. But the study by neuroscientists at Boston University found that these symptoms may be the result of a separate disease, determined to be LBD.

While people with Lewy Body Disease are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, the condition has been found to cause problems with movement, cognition, and sleep, as well as depression and visual hallucinations. The BU researchers also found that this relationship between all contact sports and LBD is independent of CTE pathology.

“We found the number of years an individual was exposed to contact sports, including football, ice hockey, and boxing, was associated with the development of neocortical LBD, and LBD, in turn, was associated with parkinsonism and dementia,” explains corresponding author Dr. Thor Stein, a neuropathologist assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, in a media release.

Dr. Stein’s team, which comprised neurologists from both BUSM and the VA Boston Healthcare System, examined 694 brains from three repositories, such as the Veteran’s Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation. The researchers organized the brains by the total number of years of contact sports played. They found that the longer the individual played contact sports, the higher the risk of contracting LBD in the brain cortex.

Individuals who played more than eight years of contact sports had the highest risk of LBD, which was six times higher than individuals who played less than eight years. Athletes with both CTE and Lewy Body Disease were much more likely to have dementia and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease than people with CTE pathology alone.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.

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