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Harvard University releases app to study NFL player health

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As concern over the connection between brain injury and football becomes more widespread, Harvard University released an app to track the health of former NFL players.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the month, the NFL senior vice president for health, Jeff Miller, admitted that there is a link between football and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE. Brain health and the NFL have been in the spotlight in the wake of the release of the movie Concussion, news of lawsuits against the NFL, and numerous reports of former NFL players suffering from forgetfulness, mood swings, and poor quality of life.

Boston University has long been the hub of CTE research, but now Harvard University has developed an app called TeamStudy, designed to collect information from former NFL players. The app focuses on cardiac health, mobility, and cognition and cognitive reserve, according to a Harvard website that describes the initiative. The app requires participants to answer surveys and participate in a physical activity every two weeks.

Former Steelers offensive linemen Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk were both found to have CTE after their deaths. Both experienced a slew of troubling symptoms after their NFL careers came to an end. Other NFL players, including Junior Seau and Frank Gifford, were also found to have the disease, which can only be diagnosed posthumously.

Despite numerous cases of CTE found in former football players and other research indicating a link between CTE and football, last March, Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon and NFL medical consultant downplayed the risk of CTE saying, via ESPN.com, "I think the problem of CTE, although real, is it's being over exaggerated and being extrapolated to youth football and to high school football."

At the time, Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute refuted Maroon's assertion, saying, also via ESPN, "The Centers for Disease Control found that regarding concussions, football is the most dangerous activity for boys age 10-14, causing more emergency department visits for brain injuries than both riding a bike or a skateboard. For ages 5-9 there are more brain injuries resulting from football than skateboarding."

While CTE can only be diagnosed after death, the Harvard app can collect data related to cognitive functioning and other aspects of former players' health and compare them to data from the general public. Former Steelers linebacker Chad Brown has decided to participate in the study, saying via the Post-Gazette, "From a former player perspective there have been studies done, but they've been limited. There have been questionnaires in the past. This is a whole body health kind of thing and we get the feedback."

Despite 15 years in the NFL, Brown considers himself pretty healthy. Still, he views participation in the study as way to benefit players who were less fortunate. He explained, "Part of the NFL is you're in this fraternity and brotherhood. If I can help my brothers out, I want to do that."

Since Harvard needs to compare NFL players' data to a control group, the general public is also eligible to download the app and participate in the study. The data will be used for research purposes only and will not be used for for-profit ventures, according to Harvard. The data Harvard collects will be both encrypted and de-identified, so your name is not associated with your health data. To participate, click here.