At the Age of 27, Aaron Hernandez Was Living with Severe Symptoms of CTE

Whether you follow contact sports or not, you’ve likely heard his name.

Aaron Hernandez made the headlines earlier this year when he allegedly took his own life in prison. Formally a productive player in the NFL, his career came to a halt when he was convicted of murder.

After closer inspection, it appears that Aaron had the most severe case of chronic encephalopathy (CTE) ever discovered in an individual his age. This is what researchers found, and what these findings mean within the world of contact sports.

Aaron Hernandez Makes the Headlines Once Again

Although Aaron hasn’t been with us since April of this year, that was not the end for him. After hanging himself with a bedsheet while serving a life sentence, researchers used this opportunity to help others who dedicate their lives to contact sports.

What they found, was that Hernandez had suffered from the most severe case of CTE that they had seen, based on his age. Being just 27 years old, they were shocked by what they discovered.

Due to his brain’s pristine condition, this rare opportunity certainly sheds light on a controversial issue. By linking one of football’s most notorious players to one of the most significant health concerns, doctors and researchers were able to show the risk that players face.

More specifically, Hernandez was living with what’s known as Stage 3 CTE — which has never been documented in anyone younger than 46 years of age. Based on this damage, the researchers also stated that these neurological effects would have significantly affected his cognition, judgment, and decision-making skills.

Although researchers can not generalize, one thing is clear — for his age group, Hernandez was at the severe end of the spectrum. This is, of course, a major concern for young athletes.

When the research was presented at a Boston University medical conference, here is what attendees witnessed:

  • When flipping through slides, comparing Hernandez’s brain with a non-CTE sample, the differences were glaringly apparent. Hernandez displayed dark spots on his brain that were associated with tau protein, as well as withered, shrunken areas.

  • His brain had experienced significant damage to the frontal lobe, reducing his ability to make sound decisions and moderate his behavior. From the outside, his brain looked normal — it wasn’t until the researchers sliced his brain into sections that the damage became apparent.

  • A discussion regarding a potential contributing factor. Hernandez had a genetic marker that made him more vulnerable to specific brain diseases, and may have contributed to the severity of his case.

A Little More on CTE

When it comes to CTE, researchers have explained that based on the pathology and progression, certain behaviors can often be explained. Based on past experiences, those who suffer from this condition tend to struggle with impulse control, anger, rage behaviors, emotional volatility, and decision-making.

Although this research is still fairly new, Boston University researchers stated that they have already discovered CTE in more than 100 former professional football players. A handful of these had committed suicide. This has also been a hot topic, within the world of professional boxing.

Recommended reading: How Playing Football Affected the Brains of NFL Players

CTE has certainly caught the attention of athletes, but military veterans (or anyone with a history of repetitive brain trauma) are also at-risk. For those in their 20s and 30s, early symptoms may include paranoia, impulse control problems, depression, and aggression. As the condition progresses, this is when problems surface in relation to memory, judgement, and overall cognition.

I’ve Had a Concussion, Am I At Risk?

Before you become too alarmed, just because you have suffered from a concussion or two, does not mean that you will develop CTE. Researchers believe that this condition develops due to hundreds or even thousands of blows to the head. When considering the career of contact sport athletes or military personal, you can see how this would be possible.

Like Alzheimer’s disease, CTE can only be 100% diagnosed after death. A brain tissue autopsy is required, as doctors look for unique patterns of Tau clumps, which are specific to CTE.

Although this is no treatment for CTE in terms of a cure, therapies can target specific symptoms. For instance, changes in mood can be addressed via cognitive behavioral therapy; headaches can be treated using medications or massage; and specific brain training exercises may influence cognition.

If you believe that you or a loved one are showcasing abnormal symptoms and have been exposed to numerous brain trauma injuries, it’s important to speak with a specialist.

Remember, good health comes with knowledge — and knowledge is power. 


Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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