NFL Hall of Famer Frank Gifford Had Brain Disease Before Death

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NFL Hall of Famer Frank GiffordFormer National Football League (NFL) player Frank Gifford passed away in August at 84-years-old. Now, Gifford’s family has announced that the former NFL star and sportscaster suffered from a progressive brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) prior to his passing.

CTE is associated with brain injuries and head trauma; it is also a common injury among many former NFL players. However, CTE is diagnosed only after death.

Gifford left behind his wife of 27 years, television host Kathie Lee Gifford. The Gifford family made the announcement to help spread CTE awareness and its relation to football.
“During the last years of his life, Frank dedicated himself to understanding the recent revelations concerning the connection between repetitive head trauma and its associated cognitive and behavioral symptoms, which he experienced firsthand,” explained the Gifford family in a statement.

The Gifford family did not release details about the severity of CTE that the former football player experienced. That being said, common CTE symptoms include aggressive behavior, depression, apathy, short-term memory loss, impulse control issues, substance abuse, emotional instability, difficulty performing everyday tasks, and suicidal thoughts.

CTE causes a buildup of a protein called tau in brain tissue. It can disable neural pathways that control a person’s fear, judgment, and memory. Many researchers believe that tau plays a major role in the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is often the final stage of CTE symptoms. CTE symptoms are also often involved in other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Gifford played his entire 12-year NFL career with the New York Giants. The halfback and flanker had 77 total touchdowns with 9,043 yards from scrimmage. He was also an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, a six-time All-Pro Selection, and his team won the Super Bowl championship in 1956. In 1977, Gifford was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gifford is known for sustaining one of the most brutal injuries in the NFL when Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik tackled him hard in 1960. Gifford remained motionless after dropping the ball and had suffered a concussion. He retired the following year but later returned to play in 1962.

In 2012, former NFL player Junior Seau took his life at the age of 43; it was later discovered by the National Institutes of Health that he had CTE.

There are several other former NFL players who have died, and were later diagnosed with CTE and brain-related trauma. The list of players includes Jovan Belcher, Justin Strzelcyk, Lew Carpenter, John Grimsley, Chris Henry, Terry Long, John Mackey, Ollie Matson, Andre Waters, and Hall of Famers Louis Creekmur and Mike Webster.

In a study published in October, researchers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University analyzed the brains of former NFL players who donated their brains to science; they discovered CTE in 87 of 91 players. Another study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma in August found that NFL players have an increased risk of brain development alterations when playing football at the age of 12.

The NFL settled a lawsuit in April that provides up to $5 million for retired players with severe medical conditions linked with head trauma. The NFL is also doing everything it can to prevent CTE-related brain injuries in players.

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Stamm, J.M., et al., “Age at First Exposure to Football is Associated with Altered Corpus Callosum White Matter Microstructure in Former Professional Football Players,” Journal of Neurotrauma, 2015; 150722061557008, doi: 10.1089/neu.2014.3822.
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