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117. Cognitive performance and mental health among former NFL players in the Harvard Football Players Health Study
Recent studies have linked participation in sports with repeated head trauma (such as American-style football) to adverse cognitive effects across the lifespan. We examined the relationship between cognitive ability, psychiatric symptoms, and concussion history in 358 former NFL players as part of the Harvard Football Players Health Study. This study included surveys about mental health and tests of memory, processing speed, executive function, and verbal reasoning. Adjusting for age and gender, former NFL players showed poorer performance in processing speed and verbal memory compared to normative samples. Former players had better multiple object tracking, although this effect did not survive multiple comparisons correction (d = 0.1; p = 0.02). After controlling for premorbid IQ using vocabulary, however, only verbal memory differences remained significant. Poorer cognitive performance was significantly associated with depression (PHQ-4, B = -0.35, p < 8E-12), anxiety (GAD-7, B = -0.31, p < 5E-10), and self-reported loss of consciousness due to concussion (p = 0.00056). Our results suggest that former NFL players exhibit some differences in average cognitive performance relative to normative samples, but with small effect sizes. However, existing impairments are associated with differences in mental health that may lead to poorer quality of life and functional outcomes.