Joe Thomas, offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns, has never missed a snap in his 11-year NFL career, never been diagnosed with a concussion and not been particularly vocal about growing concerns regarding the mental health risks associated with football.
But that doesn’t mean Thomas doesn’t realize the sport he’s spent most of his life playing could have a significant impact on his mind.
In an interview on “In Depth With Graham Bensinger” released Wednesday, Thomas said he is already experiencing memory loss at the age of 32, and that he expects it to get worse in the coming years.
“I definitely expect memory loss,” Thomas said in the interview. “I'm already seeing memory loss, and maybe that's just because of my old age or maybe it's football, it's hard to tell.”
“I mean, there's no double-blind studies when it comes to people's life. It's just a part, I think, of sometimes getting older. And it's hard to tell it's because of football or because you're 32 and you're not 21 anymore and you have a lot of stuff going in your life.”
When asked what kind of memory loss he was speaking about, Thomas said he struggled with “short-term memory loss,” including “little stuff.”
“Like, you walk to the grocery store and you're like, ‘Huh, I can't remember what I needed to get.’”
According to medical studies, memory loss may begin for normal adults very early on in life, with the process starting at around the age of 20, per ABC News. Still, most people report first noticing and worrying about issues with memory in their 60s, per The Guardian.
And while the NFL has reached a $1 billion court settlement with former players who say they suffered repeated concussions during their careers, leading to a variety of brain injuries and illnesses, other studies have shown that linemen like Thomas, often suffer hundreds, if not thousands, of “subconcussive hits” throughout their careers, per the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Defined as a head impact that does not result in a clinically-diagnosed concussion, subconcussive hits are often described as having one’s “bell rung” or “getting dinged,” per Sports Illustrated. Many football players say they experience such hits far more often than they are diagnosed with concussions, but research suggests that they also result in brain damage and illnesses. One study from Temple University found that the equivalent to a routine hit to a lineman’s head can cause changes to the brain that result in dizziness and balance issues.
In another part of the interview, Thomas told Bensinger that he has played around 10,000 consecutive snaps in his career and that it is too late for him to do anything about potential brain damage.
“I think from my perspective, I can't do anything about it. This was the profession that I have already chosen, and most of the damage has probably been done already. So what are the things that I can do to try to minimize my chances of having those negative effects down the line, and then do everything I possibly can. Then I can't worry about it. I have to accept it,” Brown said.
“But I do hope that medicine continues to improve and, in 10 years maybe, they'll be able to fix my body better than they did for the poor guys who are crippled up from playing in the NFL in the '60s and the '70s.”
While Thomas is maintaining a positive attitude about the state of his mental health — he joked with Bensinger that his wife would be the one to really suffer from his memory loss — the subject of football’s impact on the brain has resurfaced recently with the suicide of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2013, abruptly ending his football career and sending him to jail for life. He was later acquitted of a 2012 double homicide on April 19 before killing himself the next day.
His family later announced his brain would be donated to an academic center to see if he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head that has been found in the brain of more than 100 former NFL players. CTE’s symptoms include depression, suicidal tendencies, aggression and memory loss, per the New York Times.