Young football players may have increased risk of health problems later on

Aubrey Yates
September 19, 2017

Playing tackle football under the age of 12 exposes children to repetitive head impacts that may double their risk of developing behavioral problems and triple their chances of suffering depression later in life, according to a study published Tuesday in Nature magazine's journal, Translational Psychiatry.

For the new study, Stern and colleagues looked again at the potential link, drawing from a larger cohort that included not just former professional players, but those who only played through high school or college. As noted in the Globe's story, a recent UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion study found that 53 percent of adults say they believe playing football before high school can be hazardous to health. Those who started playing when younger demonstrated a twofold increase in risk for apathy and behavioral regulation and a threefold increase in risk for depression, compared with those who started playing later.

The researchers used phone interviews and online surveys to collect their information and only examined behavioral changes in this study.

"This study adds to growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to a greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences", said Michael Alosco, PhD, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).

Another study published past year by researchers at Wake Forest University involved MRI scans of middle-school football players' brains; it showed changes related to non-concussive head impacts after a single season. The researchers said they set 12 as the threshold age "because the brain undergoes a key period of development and maturation between the ages of 10-12 in males". They examined other age cutoffs as well, though the age 12 cutoff led to the most robust findings. The average age of the subjects was 51.

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Joel Stitzel, one of the leaders of that research, said the new study is "important and informative", and "helps motivate the need for more longitudinal study". Julian Bailes, the youth league's medical director, was unavailable.

Rowson put it this way: "Youth football leagues, like Pop Warner, have started restricting contact practice days and eliminating certain drills".

Still, she said, "it doesn't really surprise me that the younger your age of first exposure is to football, the more impairment or cognitive deficits will show later in life".

But the chances for exposure increases dramatically when kids play youth football, of course. The researchers don't consider reasons players may have begun playing football early, and it doesn't compare the rates of the various mental problems to similar men who never played football.

Stern said he was not prepared to offer a specific point at which kids shouldn't play ("I don't know if there's a magic age"), but he did caution against reading the findings to suggest the brain was safe if kids waited until 12 to begin participating in tackle football. Stern, for instance, is a member of the Mackey-White Committee of the NFL Players Association and is a paid consultant to pharmaceutical companies.

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