CTE: Why Head Trauma Causes Progressive Damage Years Later

Scary Symptoms—October 25, 2014

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) begins developing years, sometimes decades, after the athlete retires, but why? Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) refers to the progressive damage that continues to occur to the brain—even after the athlete retires and no longer receives hits to the head.

You'd think that the maximum damage to the brain would be whatever damage was there at the time of retirement from sports—and that it stays at that level (provided the athlete never gets hit in the head again).

But no, that's only the beginning for some retired athletes: The snowball continues rolling down the hill, getting bigger and bigger. So why?

Dr. Teena Shetty, MD, is a neurologist at Hospital for Special Surgery and an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant for the New York Giants. She says, "The potential for cumulative damage from repetitive concussions or subconcussive blows is of growing concern and remains incompletely understood."

She says that aging and genetics may play a role in the progression, but the extent to which they do is unclear. Additionally, many retired athletes with CTE are in their 40s and 50s. Although symptoms can be subtle at first and therefore missed for years, this does not explain the progressive factor, given the absence of continuing concussions.

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