Brain study expanded to ex-NHLers, CIS players

TORONTO — A study tracking the brain health of retired NHL players over several years has received $750,000 in additional funding to expand recruitment to university hockey alumni.

Thirty retired NHL players are currently enrolled in the study begun in 2011 by researchers at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto.

The new funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will allow former university hockey players up to age 90 to join the study.

Lead investigator Brian Levine says the new funding will allow researchers to generalize their findings from a sample of hockey players more representative of the general population.

The former NHL players are undergoing comprehensive cognitive testing, brain scans and other tests aimed at identifying risk factors associated with dementia.

They will also have the option of donating their brains after death to determine if any neurodegenerative disease had occurred.

The study is unique because it focuses on aging hockey players, looking at numerous factors that can potentially affect brain health over time, said Levine, a senior scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and an expert in head trauma and dementia.

“This is one of the most comprehensive studies out there,” he said Thursday in a statement. “In addition to concussion history, we are looking at lifestyle factors, chronic illnesses, and genetics and proteins related to dementia, which can all impact cognitive health in aging.”

Levine and his colleagues are testing individuals with and without a history of concussion, and those with and without age-related cognitive and behavioural changes. Comparing these different groups of volunteers is crucial to isolating important factors in neurodegenerative disease.

“As former super-fit athletes from a high-impact sport, we are very interested in contributing to research that will help illuminate the different factors that influence the aging process, particularly around brain health and dementia,” said Mark Napier, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association.

“We hope that the findings will have wider implications for all aging adults.”

The study has also enrolled age- and education-matched family members and friends of the retired NHL players to form a comparison group that is undergoing the same assessment.

The comparison group will help researchers tease apart the brain health factors that may be specific to retired hockey players as opposed to those that are present in the general population. Follow-up testing will take place every four years.

University hockey alumni who are interested in enrolling in the study should contact Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute recruitment hotline, 416-785-2500, ext. 3100. Eligible participants may still be active in recreational sports; however, those who are still actively competing as a professional, semi-professional or university hockey player will not qualify.

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