Former University of Notre Dame college football players have higher rates of brain disorders than the general public, according to a new medical study published April 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study was conducted by Boston University’s CTE Center, which researches the consequences of repetitive head trauma among athletes and military personnel, as part of the Independent Notre Dame Footballers Medical Research Project.
It focused on 447 former Notre Dame football players who played on the team as seniors from 1964 to 1980.
Two hundred and sixteen of those players completed a health survey, and the results were compared to a representative sample of the general population made up of men in the same age group.
Surveyed players were five times more likely to report a cognitive impairment diagnosis later in life, two and a half times more likely to report frequent headaches, 65 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease and 80 percent more likely to have high cholesterol.
In addition, the surveyed players were four times more likely to die of brain cancer or other nervous system disorders.
At the same time, their overall mortality was significantly lower than that of the general population, including from circulatory, respiratory and digestive system conditions as well as lung cancer.
According to the study, that may be the result of the “healthy worker effect” because former football players are more likely to do regular exercise and physical activity than the general population.
The former Notre Dame players were also found to have a higher rate of deaths from degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson's Disease and ALS, but the difference was not statistically significant.
Previous research into former NFL players have found that they have higher rates of brain disorders than the general population.
For example, a 2017 study that examined the donated brains of 111 former NFL players found that all but one had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — a fatal, degenerative brain disease that can cause dementia and is associated with repeated concussions and other head injuries.
That study also examined the donated brains of 53 former college football players and found CTE present in all but five. It can only be diagnosed after death.
Fifteen percent of the surveyed former Notre Dame players went on to play football professionally, but the study did not find any statistically significant differences between the two groups.
The study is not the first time a potential link has been made between Notre Dame football and future cognitive impacts.
In September 2021, a former Notre Dame football player filed a federal lawsuit against the school and the NCAA alleging that both entities “recklessly disregarded” information related to the medical dangers of concussions and head injuries.
In 2014, the NCAA agreed to a $75 million settlement with former athletes over concussions — $70 million goes to a Medical Monitoring Fund and $5 million goes to research on concussion prevention and treatment.
The NCAA admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to require that schools make changes to policies governing head injuries. The settlement agreement was finalized in 2019, but the organization and various universities have since faced a wave of similar lawsuits.
Boston University researchers are currently seeking participants for a second phase of the study, which will be open to anyone over the age of 40 who played football at Notre Dame, including phase one participants.
More information is available online. The study is fully independent from and has no affiliation with the University of Notre Dame.
The University of Notre Dame is a financial supporter of WVPE.