What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is an insidious condition that robs people of their dignity and sense of identity. According to the Concussion Foundation, CTE is a degenerative brain condition that features the destruction of brain cells by a certain protein that results from repetitive head trauma, such as those trauma experienced by soldiers and athletes.

Signs and Symptoms

Similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, the first things to be affected are the ability to concentrate and the loss of memory. The progress of the condition is usually so slow that both the sufferer and the sufferer’s family and friends don’t notice anything other than “Joe seems a little off today.” Often, the disease manifests itself in mood and personality changes. The memory and thinking deficits cause frustration, and the person lashes out because the reason for the deficits, and quite possibly the deficits themselves, are unclear.

As the disease progresses, the sufferer loses the ability to care for him or herself. Mike Webster, the legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who was a member of the Hall of Fame, was living on benches in bus and train stations at the end of his life. At the time, he barely recognized his brother and had little clue who he was himself. He lived with his son, who was only a teenager at the time, and he died at age 50.

Difficulties in Treatment

The chief obstacle to both diagnosis and treatment is that the disease cannot actually be diagnosed until after death. While the sufferer is still living, the diagnostician must evaluate all of the symptoms, gather the patient’s history, and make well-reasoned decisions and guesses to arrive at the conclusion that the patient suffers from CTE.

Treatment is restricted to strategies that improve the quality of life because there is no cure. People with the disease are encouraged to practice note-taking and note-writing regimens to remind themselves of necessary things, such as taking medications properly and on-time. Both the patient and the supporting family members and friends can help by keeping the patient on a strict routine that reduces the need for complex memories.

Patients with the condition also experience shame and doubt and sometimes refuse to seek help. Mike Webster was one such patient. He was so used to being in control and being “a man’s man” that he refused the offers of a place to sleep and even food from family members and friends, preferring to living as a homeless man in a fog of dementia. It is crucial for patients to realize that seeking help is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

The Way Forward

Because the only way to diagnose the disease is to section the brain after death, the only way to further the understanding of the disease is to donate one’s brain to research. There are promising studies currently running, and it is hoped that effective treatments will be forthcoming in the future. Should people with the disease wish to help others in the future, they should consider such a donation.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy affects almost anyone who plays hard contact sports, such as American football. According to NBC Sports, more than 99 percent of deceased former NFL players suffered from the condition. There are no easy answers, but with awareness and a hopeful outlook, such answers just might become available sooner rather than later.

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