Add high blood pressure to the list of problems associated with concussions among former pro football players.
Researchers at Harvard University's Football Players Health Study linked a history of concussions to elevated risk for high blood pressure among ex-NFL players.
The results suggest that treating former athletes who have both high blood pressure and a history of concussions could help protect them against heart, blood vessel and mental (cognitive) decline.
“If players, families, and physicians are aware of the cardiovascular effects of head injury, we have a better chance of protecting both their cardiovascular health and long-term cognitive health,” study author Rachel Grashow said in a Harvard news release. She is director of epidemiological research initiatives for the Football Players Health Study.
Grashow headed up the new study with Dr. Aaron Baggish, professor of medicine at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and senior faculty member at the Football Players Health Study.
The findings are based on a survey of more than 4,000 former National Football League players looking at various aspects of players' health across their life span.
Most research on mental decline in former pro football players has focused on neurodegeneration caused directly by repeated concussions, Grashow said.
But heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability among former football players and Americans in general. And high blood pressure is the most common cause of these conditions. It can also gradually damage blood vessels in the brain, leading to mental decline.
To learn more, researchers analyzed players for high blood pressure risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, age and smoking, as well number of seasons of played, field position, years since play, and the occurrence of 10 common concussion symptoms.
Each player was given a concussion symptom score (CSS).
As scores rose, so did their likelihood of being diagnosed with high blood pressure. Even analyzing cases using just one severe concussion symptom -- loss of consciousness -- accurately predicted likelihood of developing high blood pressure.
The odds that these former players will be diagnosed with high blood pressure rises with each concussion, according to the study.
One possible explanation for the link is that repeat concussions could cause a chronic inflammation that prompts blood pressure to rise, Grashow said.
More research will be needed to confirm why this happens.
Unlike many of the risk factors for cognitive decline, high blood pressure can be controlled with safe and effective therapies, Baggish said. This could include diet changes, aerobic exercise and medication.
“By identifying those at increased risk for hypertension based on their history of head injuries, we could intervene with therapies that not only protect their hearts and blood vessels, but also their brains,” Baggish said in the release.
This study was supported by Harvard Catalyst/The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).
The NFLPA had no role in the design and conduct of the study.
The findings were published Feb. 7 in the journal Circulation.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on high blood pressure.
SOURCE: Harvard University, news release, Feb. 7, 2023