DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – 34 former NFL players, mostly retired Dallas Cowboys, are allowing researchers to study their brains right here in North Texas.  So far, the findings may be encouraging to parents of children playing contact sports.

Daryl Johnston is a former Dallas Cowboys great who recruited many of the retired players to be part of the study. He’s suffered several concussions on and off the field.

“It’s inevitable. It’s just a matter of time. When does the dementia come? When does the Alzheimer’s come?”

Johnston also has a son who plays youth football. He wanted to know what to expect for himself, his family, and for others who could potentially be impacted by contact sports.

Scientists at the Brain Center of Dallas began their research in 2010.  The study is the now the largest comprehensive neurological testing ever done on retired NFL players. The average age of the players in the study is 62-years old. They suffered from zero-to-13 concussions in their lifetime.

The results are now published in Journal of the American Medical Association’s Neurology page.

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In short, researchers found 41% of the athletes have some form of cognitive impairment. They have more problems with memory, names and finding the right words than the general population.

Twenty-four percent of the retired players have been diagnosed with depression. Again, that is more than the average population.

But, Doctor John Hart is more focused on what the study did NOT find.

“Half of the guys are perfectly fine. That was kind of surprising that greater than half of the guys have no problem what-so-ever.”

Doctor Hart expected to find more brain damage in more of the retired players. Doctor Hart is the lead researcher for the study. He is also the Medical Science Director at the Center for Brain Health.

Hart hopes the findings will also help doctors eventually predict the impact of brain damage in younger athletes.  Based on brain structure, they are learning that some injuries, detected early enough, can be repairable.

“Even for folks that were coming in and seeing us and having problems, those things were readily addressable,” explained Hart.

This says the new guidelines, which require players to sit out after a hard hit, are needed.  The brain CAN repair.  And that’s why Dr. Hart and Daryl Johnston both say they’ll let their chidlren continue playing contact sports.

Although this study is now published in JAMA Neurological, the research, lead by The Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas, continues. More than two dozen more former NFL athletes are now participating- putting their minds under the microscope.

Researchers say the retired players hope the study will eventually benefit future athletes.

In the meantime, they believe the findings are far better than the expected. While the players do suffer more cognitive deficits and dementia than the average population, the majority of them do not have any cognitive impairment. Doctor Hart says this contradicted his expectations and the common popular belief about retired NFL players.

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