Mitch Edelman: Concern about brain injuries increasing

Today is another Purple Friday. Last weekend, people everywhere I went wore Ravens gear. They proudly and passionately showed their involvement with and support for the local team.

We were not disappointed, as the Ravens played their best game of the season to upset the highly favored Denver Broncos. TV sportscasters described the action as "hard hitting."

Those hard hits and crushing tackles are dangerous. According to medical researchers from UCLA and Seton Hall University, players in the NFL incur between 100,000 to 300,000 "concussive episodes" each year. These range in severity from being "dinged," i.e. suffering dizziness or confusion to losing consciousness. Each of these so-called episodes has the potential to cause or increase the severity of existing brain traumas.

Over the course of a player's career, those injuries may result in a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Back in 1928, the syndrome was called "punch drunk syndrome," but it isn't just boxers who show the devastating effects of CTE. Football and hockey players at all levels, from professional to high-school, risk permanent, irreversible brain damage every time they play.

Last May, after Junior Seau killed himself at age 43, his brain was examined. It had cellular damage consistent with CTE. Significantly, Seau had never been diagnosed with a concussion during his 20-year professional football career. At least 17 other former NFL players, ranging in age from the late 30s to 80 have been diagnosed with CTE. The only way to confirm this diagnosis is post-mortem. Most of them died young. Many of them committed suicide.

If this were just a problem associated with athletes, we might content ourselves by noting the increased attention the NFL and NHL have given to making their sports less dangerous. But the problem is not just sports-related.

Scientists at Yale University released a study last year showing that battlefield explosions have the power to cause CTE-like brain injuries. A Rand Corporation study showed that one in five GIs deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan experienced symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Almost 300,000 U.S. soldiers came back with ticking time bombs in their heads.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome affects another 150,000 GIs. PTSD is thought to be a significant risk factor to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. According to the Rand study, almost 31 percent of our troops suffer from some form of brain injury.

The football field and the battlefield aren't the only places brain damage occurs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each year, about 1.7 million Americans sustain some form of TBI. The most common cause is falls. Children younger than 4 and the elderly are most likely to be affected, with automobile accidents the leading cause of death due to TBI.

The CDC calculates the annual dollar cost of brain injury as more than $76 billion, of which about $12.5 billion is for medical treatment. Even in our trillion-dollar economy, that's a lot of money. And it does not include the costs to care for Iraqi and Afghan war veterans with TBI or PTSD.

Last year, HR 4238, the Traumatic Brain Injury Act of 2012 was introduced in the House of Representatives.

That bill would have reauthorized the Department of Health and Human Services to sponsor projects for preventing traumatic brain injuries. It provided for collecting data on TBI occurrences and treatment among the military. And it would have required HHS to study the specific needs of youth with TBI. Sadly, HR 4238 died in committee.

Given the staggering cost in human suffering and dollars that TBI causes, and especially given the relationship between it and Alzheimer's disease, it seems that the House of Representatives might have earned better marks by funding research for treating and preventing it. Of course, that would have required the outgoing House to have done something constructive with its time. Let's hope the new one does better.

And let's also hope for injury-free football games this weekend, and for one more Purple Friday.