Mike Pyle: Head Injuries and Dementia


Former Chicago Bears tight end Mike Pyle died this month of a brain hemorrhage at age 76. He had been one of the smartest players in the National Football League. In 1960, he was captain of the undefeated Yale football team that destroyed Harvard 39–6, and received the Lambert Trophy as the top college team in the East. He also was the offensive team captain of the Chicago Bears from 1963 through his retirement in 1969. That includes the 1963 Bears team that won the NFL championship. His Chicago teammates admired him and elected him as their player representative during the 1960s, and he was president of the NFL Players Association in 1967. At age 76, he died from bleeding into his brain after many years of dementia, diabetes and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition caused by multiple concussions on the football field.

Early Years and Football Career
Pyle was born in 1939, grew up in Chicago and was graduated from New Trier High School where he was an all-state high school football player. He was also the Illinois state champion in heavyweight wrestling, shot-put and discus. His father wanted him to go to Michigan State but he went to Yale. After college, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears, was a starter in his first pro season and played nine seasons (1961-1969). In 1963 he played in the Pro Bowl. In 1969, he retired to become a broadcaster for WGN radio.

While playing for the Chicago Bears, he developed diabetes and had to take insulin injections, but he missed only five games over nine seasons. Three times during his football career he was knocked unconscious, once at Yale and twice with the Bears. He had two of the most common known causes of dementia: diabetes and concussions. At least 20 years before his death he became forgetful, and he ended up in a full-time assisted-living facility. He stopped talking, could barely walk or use his hands, and was confined to a wheelchair. He was among the 245 former Bears to take part in the concussion lawsuit against the NFL, charging that it had disregarded the dangers of head injuries.

Causes of Dementia
• Traumatic brain injuries, often found in boxers, football players and soldiers. The more head injuries suffered, the greater the risk of dementia.
• Vascular dementia, where arteries carrying blood to the brain are damaged by diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and so forth.
• Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in people over age 65. It is usually characterized by slow loss of memory over eight to ten years.
• Parkinson’s disease
• Many different genetic disorders

If a person starts to lose memory, it is always a good idea to get a thorough medical work up for treatable causes such as:
• Infections: meningitis, encephalitis, untreated syphilis, Lyme disease, and many others
• Immune system disorders such as leukemia or multiple sclerosis
• Metabolic disorders such as thyroid disease, diabetes, mineral abnormalities or vitamin deficiencies (B12, B1)
• Alcoholism
• Recreational drug abuse
• Reaction to medications
• Bleeding into the brain
• Poisoning through exposure to metals (lead, mercury and arsenic), toxins (pesticides, herbicides), industrial chemicals and so forth
• A brain tumor
• Smoking
• Damaged blood vessels, often caused by diabetes, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure or high cholesterol
• High estrogen levels (women who take estrogen and progesterone for many years after menopause are at increased risk for dementia)
• High homocysteine, a type of amino acid produced by your body, is associated with increased risk for blood vessel dementia
• Obesity

How to Reduce Your Risk for Dementia
• Protect yourself from head injuries. Use a seatbelt no matter how short the trip, and wear a helmet whenever you get on a bicycle. Activities that can cause you to bang your head can cause permanent brain damage many years later. That includes contact sports such as boxing, football, soccer, and so forth. Staying fit as you age can help you avoid falls, one of the most common causes of head injuries in seniors.

• Continue to use your brain as much as possible. Pick leisure activities that require thinking, such as playing card games and computer games, solving crossword puzzles, and playing intellectual games such as chess. Make lists in your head. Count steps when you are running or pedal strokes while cycling. Do active reading. Write letters and articles that require organizing your thoughts. Maintain friendships and stay sociable. Restrict passive brain activities such as watching television.

• Change your lifestyle to avoid anything that damages your arteries. Restrict sugar-added foods, sugar added-drinks, red meat and fried foods. Eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables. Try to exercise every day. Avoid excess weight, particularly fat stored over your belly. Get blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D over 50 nmol/L.

• Avoid lifestyle habits that can damage any part of your body such as smoking, drinking alcohol, recreational drugs, air pollution and so forth.

Michael Johnson Pyle
July 18, 1939 – July 29, 2015