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Headed for trouble? (cont.)

Posted: Friday October 13, 2006 12:05PM; Updated: Friday October 13, 2006 5:36PM
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By Christopher Nowinski, Special to SI.com

Life-threatening consequences

If he is cleared to play, Morgan (55) says he would like to return to the NFL in 2007.
If he is cleared to play, Morgan (55) says he would like to return to the NFL in 2007.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
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While the links between head injuries and increased risk for neurological disorders have been illustrated in dozens, if not hundreds, of studies involving both athletes and the general population, perhaps the most relevant study was performed by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina. Working with the NFL Players Association, the Center surveyed 2,500 former NFL players regarding their current health.

The most shocking data to come out of the survey had to do with concussions. Those players who reported not having suffered any concussions during their careers reported rates of neurological disorders similar to the general population, with normal levels of depression and of a cognitive disorder known as mild cognitive impairment, which is sometimes described as a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. But those players with three or more concussions reported suffering more than triple the rate of depression and triple the rate of mild cognitive impairment. In fact, about one out of every five players was currently suffering from one of the disorders.

One may be tempted to immediately draw a comparison between that data, on players with as few as three concussions, and Morgan's six-plus concussions. Does that mean he already has a 50-50 chance of developing clinical depression, or worse, in a few years?

The reality is that those numbers cannot be directly compared. Counting concussions, especially self-reported concussions, isn't an exact science. The data from the study indicate that those players were reporting only severe concussions, and it is impossible to know how many concussions Morgan has really had. He has had injuries that certainly appear to have been concussions that were not called concussions by the team. The Associated Press reported that the Panthers didn't classify Morgan's first concussion this season (which Morgan himself referred to as a ding) as a concussion until Wednesday's press conference.

And then there is the widely accepted fact that most concussions aren't diagnosed in sports. The American College of Sports Medicine says that 85 percent of sports concussions go undiagnosed, and based on published concussion-incidence studies, that number could be much higher in football.

To get a clear picture of what all these concussions could mean for Morgan in 20 years, one needs to look beyond the numbers, percentages and risks.

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