By Scott Malone
BOSTON, Jan 29 (Reuters) - The union that represents U.S. professional football players has given Harvard University a $100 million grant for a study of the range of health problems, from brain damage to heart conditions, that affect current and former players.
Researchers with Harvard Medical School plan to spend a decade studying hundreds of former players who are members of the National Football League Players Association, school officials said on Tuesday. The aim is to develop strategies to limit the long-term damage that players suffer from years of hits on the field.
The recent suicides of a spate of former NFL players, including 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, have raised concerns about the toll that hits to the head take on the brains of current and former players.
Scientists have found that years of steady, small hits can lead to a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which at its start can cause sufferers to have a hard time concentrating on small tasks and eventually can lead to aggression and dementia.
The worries are not limited to the pros; parents of players from peewee leagues to college have raised concerns about the game, and leagues have changed rules to limit hits to the head.
Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier said the research would aim to address health concerns at all levels of play.
"Millions of kids and college athletes play football, formally and informally," Flier said in a statement on the school's Web site. "We cannot afford to ignore the health risks associated with this sport."
Harvard researchers plan to identify a group of at least 1,000 retired NFL players from around the country and focus their study on 100 healthy and 100 unhealthy former players. ()