Sunday, January 31, 2010

Football Helmets and Alzheimer's in NFL Veterans

Time Magazine is out with a story on concussions in football. Surprisingly, 1.7% of NFL football players get Alzheimer's disease before age 50, compared to 0.01% of non-football players. There are scary descriptions of brown dead brain matter.

This leads me to wonder about whether a better helmet would matter. The language of helmet design is in terms of g-forces that the helmet insulates against. This article on bicycle helmets illustrate the issues.

What would a better helmet look like or is it even possible to make such a helmet? Presumably it would need to be larger with both soft foam and hard foam to protect against slow impacts as well as severe impacts.

Safety experts say the soft foam needs to be on the outside of the hard polycarbonate layer. This helmet is less durable and less attractive -- more importantly it doesn't go CLACK when you hit someone with it. On the other hand the CLACK is a sign the G-Force is too high. Procap and Gladiator helmets have these soft layers. One blogger said that the Procap helmet looks ragged by the end of the season.

Another approach is to step back from foam and augment the polycarbonate shell with mechanical shock absorbers, as discussed in the Xenith design by Vic Ferrara. The shock absorbers could absorb a greater range of impact than foam could.

Tech company Simbex offers electronic monitors built into its helmets that let doctors and worried Moms know how hard Johnny is getting hit.  The Revolution helmets are $1000.

I don't think football is going away, so it is a matter of time before some clever lawyer figures out a way to sue the NFL or big college school, and soon every kid in the country will need a fancy oversized helmet.