Growth Hormone K.O.
Boxing is undeniably brutal—the goal is to knock out your opponent, the sooner the better. Films and novels have depicted the sad postboxing lives of many fighters. Some of the greatest champions of the ring have ended up broke and in poor health, despite having earned millions in their prime. It doesn’t happen only to the pugs without a punch, either.
Sugar Ray Robinson held the middleweight title of the world five times and won the welterweight title once. Considered by most boxing experts the best pound-for-pound fighter ever, Robinson was untouchable in his younger days. His punches came fast and hard, and by the time his opponent realized what hit him, Sugar Ray had danced away, often leaving his opponent lying on his back.
Financial pressures, however, made Sugar Ray stay in the ring too long. He was still fighting at 40 and began to lose to men who wouldn’t have lasted three rounds with him in his younger days. Ray took a lot of punches in those last fights, and the resulting head trauma may have contributed to the severe case of Alzheimer’s disease that eventually caused his death.
A more recent example of the effect boxing can have on the brain is Muhammad Ali, who may be the greatest heavyweight champion ever and who was voted second to Robinson in an Associated Press poll of the greatest boxers of the 20th century. Ali doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, but it’s clear from his slurred speech and slow gait that the once lightning-fast fighter is suffering. In his case it’s Parkinson’s; the brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine have been severely damaged.
Ali was born with an abnormally small pituitary gland, the area of the brain where dopamine is produced, and that area seems to have been selectively damaged by blows to the head. Of course, Ali didn’t realize that, and it certainly didn’t affect his earlier boxing skills. Like Robinson, however, Ali fought past his prime and consequently took many head punches that would never have landed in his younger days.
Traumatic brain injury can lead to severe damage to the pituitary gland. Located just behind the nose in the brain, the gland produces many vital hormones, including growth hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone and gonadotropins such as luteinizing hormone, which controls testosterone synthesis.
Statistics show that more than 1.5 million Americans have suffered some form of TBI. Often it’s the result of head trauma, as from a violent car accident, but anything that violently hits the head can lead to TBI. About 40 percent of patients with moderate or severe head injury show damage to the pituitary gland. The hormones most affected by TBI are growth hormone and gonadotropins, the two primary anabolic hormones in the pituitary.
In some cases the damage is caused by direct injury to the pituitary gland. Or the damage may ensue from vascular injury, which limits blood flow to the gland, leading to the death of cells. A common cause of TBI is a concussion, an injury to the brain that often involves a temporary loss of consciousness and that has occurred in 40 percent of people diagnosed with TBI. The injury is common in contact sports, such as boxing, football and ice hockey. In fact, a boxer’s primary objective is to induce a concussion, which usually means knocking out the opponent.
No boxer walks away from the sport without suffering some form of brain injury. While a series of knockouts results in the greatest degree of brain damage, even being hit in the head repeatedly causes a shearing effect in the brain—because brain tissue is thrust violently against the skull—leading to an actual loss of brain cells. The cumulative effect can be devastating and may take years to show up. Early symptoms include slurred speech and slowed movement.
The worst aftermath of being hit in the head repeatedly, as in boxing, is a type of dementia that looks like Alzheimer’s disease: pugilistica dementia. Jerry Quarry, a great heavyweight of the ’70s who fought Ali, died from it, as have countless other fighters.