Paul Latimer column.

Latimer: Psychiatric issues common in former NHLers

Of the former NHL players in study, 59 percent experience depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

With the playoffs in full swing and five Canadian teams battling in the first round, Canadians across the country are tuning in nightly for hockey excitement.

As we cheer for our favourite teams as they advance toward the Stanley Cup, it’s easy to get swept away in the flood of enthusiasm over our nation’s beloved game.

Still, in the past few years, we have become increasingly aware of the potential health danger for players who may suffer repeated concussions in this and other high contact sports.

A recent University of Toronto study of 33 former NHL players looked at cognition as well as emotional well-being. Volunteers ranged in age from 34 to 71. In addition to tests, study subjects had structural and functional brain imaging, donated blood and cerebrospinal fluid for analysis. Results were compared against age controlled healthy volunteers without a history of professional sports or concussion.

Of the former NHL players involved in this study, 59 percent experienced psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. This is a fairly high number compared with rates of these conditions in the general population.

Researchers found the former players did not show significant impairment in mental or cognitive function though those who had experienced the most concussions had lower scores on problem solving and intellectual function tests than people in the comparison group.

Results will need to be further analyzed and the players are going to continue to be followed over time to learn if mental function changes as they age.

These findings confirm growing concerns about the lasting effect of concussion and underscore the importance of treating these injuries carefully.

We must continue to educate parents, coaches and families involved in sports like hockey, soccer or football. When a concussion does occur, the player should leave the game, see a doctor, and take precautions to avoid a second injury. The best way to recover from a concussion is to take ample time to rest while the brain heals. Returning to activity too soon increases the risk of further, more serious injury and likelihood of lasting damage to the brain.

A group of former players is currently suing the NHL for allegedly putting profit ahead of the long-term health of players. As we learn more about these injuries and the best ways to deal with them, we may end up seeing some changes to the game we all love.

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