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Gordie Howe, the Toughest Athlete Ever

Gordie Howe, arguably the best hockey player who ever lived, is now 85 years old and has severe short-term memory loss and difficulty speaking. His son, Marty, says he is always worse in the evening. Confusion in the evening is a common finding in people who suffer from dementia, but according to his son, “Howe’s personality hasn’t changed and he continues to recognize his family and friends.”

Can You Make the Diagnosis?
Howe was born in 1928 in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1946, at the tender age of 18, he was the starting right wing for the Detroit Red Wings in the National Hockey League and immediately became famous for scoring goals and fighting. He fought so many times in his first year that his coach, Jack Adams,took him aside and told him: “I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey?” That year, the newspapers established a special one-game title called the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”: a goal, an assist and a fight. He actually did that only twice in his brilliant career: October 10, 1953, and March 21, 1954.

During the 1950 playoffs, Howe suffered the worst injury of his career. He fractured his skull when he checked Toronto Maple Leafs captain Ted Kennedy into the boards. He was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery to relieve increasing pressure from bleeding into his brain. He appeared to recover completely and in the following season, he had 86 points in goals and assists, and won the scoring title by 20 points.

It’s Hard to Be A Professional Hockey Player for 51 Years
Like me, he is an expert on injuries. You probably can’t have an injury that he or I haven’t had. Besides the surgery at age 21 to relieve the pressure on his brain, he broke the cartilage in his knee that same year and had to miss the next 20 games of the season. He has had multiple surgeries on both knees. He estimates that he had more than 400 stitches in his skin. He broke his nose and ribs several times. He had skin cancer on his left leg in November 1999.

First Retirement
Howe retired from professional hockey for the first time in 1980 at age 52. He played for 32 consecutive years from 1946 to 1980, more than any professional athlete in any team sport. He held nearly every NHL scoring record, including most goals (801), most assists (1,049), and most games played (1,767).

Second Retirement
When he retired, he was still one of the best hockey players in the world, so he had to come back. He continued to play hockey professionally, off and on, 17 more years until age 69. The only reason he quit then was because he couldn’t walk, even though he could skate. When you have damaged knees, it hurts every time your foot hits the ground when you walk or run. Skating doesn’t put tremendous force on your knees because your feet glide on the ice, so they strike the ground with minimal force. Howe’s knees hurt so much all the time that he regularly received one hour of special therapy on his knees before each game.

He Still Played Professionally When He Was Almost Seventy
In 1997 he signed a one-game contract with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League and at age 69 he played one shift. Thus, he was the only hockey player ever to compete professionally in six different decades. He had played in the National Hockey League, World Hockey Association and International Hockey League from the 1940s to the 1990s.

His Diagnosis
Howe still does not have a formal medical diagnosis. His doctors have told him that it is very unlikely that his dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease which may be caused by diabetes and is characterized by deposition of a protein called beta amyloid into the brain. Alzheimer’s Disease can be diagnosed only by removing a piece of his brain and analyzing the tissue under a microscope. Needless to say, this has not been done.

It is most likely that he has Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, caused by the very fact that he took such a beating on his head from playing 51 years of professional hockey. This condition has been diagnosed in many former NFL and NHL players.

Protect Your Head and Body When You Play Sports as You Age
All sports, particularly professional sports, take their toll. Because athletes often compete when they are injured, they can suffer terrible permanent damage to their bodies and they have more than double the incidence of arthritis and joint replacement surgeries.

If you are an exerciser, learn from this story. Plan to exercise a little harder on one day; then on the next day, you will feel sore and should take off, or exercise at a relaxed pace, until your muscles feel completely fresh again. Do not exercise intensely when you feel pain. If you develop permanent joint damage and need joint replacements, you will have no newspaper articles or big paychecks to ease your pain.

July 28th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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