Friday, June 1, 2007

Dementia taking its toll on memory

TED JOHNSON has all the symptoms: Depression, dizziness, excessive drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, ringing in the ears, acute sensitivity to noise. And he's only 34 years old and slowly the memory and the mind of the former New England Patriots' linebacker may be vanishing.
He's almost a poster boy for an oft-dismissed disease and its advanced stage known as Alzheimer's, which can claim not only the young, as Johnson happens to be, but stretches into those in advanced years, often blatantly tagged as "the Golden Years."
One of the most searing articles about "dementia," was written by Washington Post staff writer Les Carpenter concerning the recent work of forensic pathologist Bennet Omahu, who has examined the brains of recently deceased football players such as former Philadelphia Eagles DB Andre Waters, Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive linemen Mike Webster and Terry Long and former Denver RB Damien Nash.
Referring to himself as a "brain chaser," Omahu surmises that repeated concussions in football "lead to early-onset dementia, very similar to the boxing ailment known as 'punch-drunk syndrome,'" according to the Washington Post article.
Of course, dementia can affect more than football players, but it seemingly has inroads among those who have been in heavy-contact sports, and Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press has explored the connection between concussions and permanent brain damage.
Dahlberg also brought up the case of Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been "dinged" twice (meaning two concussions) within a four-month period and then was given the a-ok signal to resume playing.
As Dahlberg wrote, "concussions, it seems, are the NFL's dirty little secret."
Two prime examples, according to the AP writer, were star quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Young, who both went into early retirement due to concussions.
Then there's former New York Giants' linebacker Harry Carson, who had a dozen or more "bellringers" (another word for concussions) and now in retirement he has memory loss.
However, the NFL and other football affiliates aren't the only domain for concussions. Dahlberg pointed out that former Philadelphia Flyers' Keith Primeau retired because concussions prevented him from completing even simple skating drills.
According to a website blurb, "the NHL has mandated baseline neuropsychological testing since 1997." This means players, who are suspected to have a concussion, have to undergo tests and there's even an "informal rule" that those with serious concussions have to sit out a week.
But those "dings" take their toll as Johnson and others have found out, including John Mackey, the Hall of Fame tight end with the NFL Baltimore Colts, who has dementia at age 65.
Mackey is still a solid specimen and can converse with his "fans," however, his mental decline can become pronounced within minutes.
Mackey's deteriorating condition as well as at least 35 other retired players with dementia or related brain problems have come to the forefront and are now being helped by the "88" plan. Of course, "88" was Mackey's number when he was playing.
According to another AP article, it provides $50,000 a year for home care and up to $88,000 if they are institutionized.
However, Johnson, who has been silent about his dilemma until February of this year, came forward after Waters' suicide and told Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan: "I want people to realize that you don't have to 'black out' to have a concussion. Most times, the symptoms of a concussion don't show up for hours, sometimes days. And this isn't just happening in the NFL. High school kids get concussions, and aren't properly monitored ... I don't want anyone to end up like me."
Johnson also told MacMullan that he had been "dinged" about 30 times or "so many times I've lost count."
There are an estimated 100,000 head injuries in amateur and professional football each year and according to USA TODAY, 61 per cent of game concussions result from helmet-to-helmet hits.
New York Jets team physician Elliott Pellman has been quoted as saying, "I always tell players and players' parents, especially, they need to respect this injury ... A concussion should be treated as a serious matter and not just written off as a 'ding.'"
Just the other day, a former athlete, who has had at least four head-rattling concussions, repeated his doctor's words: "You're in the early stages of dementia." He shook his head and muttered out loud: "Dementia, what the heck, I'm still only a young man."
WELL-KNOWN ALZHEIMER PATIENTS: Ronald Reagan, Rita Hayworth, Sugar Ray Robinson, Winston Churchill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ford, Arlene Francis.

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