New Study Links Youth Football To Cognitive Problems Later In Life

Ross Houston
September 20, 2017

Exposure to youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, executive functioning and clinically-elevated depression, according to the study.

Researchers looked at 214 former football players who began playing before age 12 and played only through high school or college.

This comes after Joe Ward, Josh Williams and Sam Manchester of the New York Times reported in July a study from Boston University in which researchers found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of 110 of 111 former National Football League players who had died.

Football's impact on young players has been a growing area of research in recent years, and while the Boston University study focuses on the possible long-term impact, other researchers have examined the short-term consequences the sport can have on developing brains.

Robert Stern, who is one of the leading researchers.

Since the initial reports of CTE were made known to the public years ago and the ever-growing lists of former NFL athletes taking their lives as a result, the debate on whether kids should be playing tackle football has been a hot topic.

Others, including Bennet Omalu, the University of California neuropathologist who first linked football to CTE, went further.

These risks were not affected by the number of years spent playing football or the amount of concussions participants experienced but the effects were worse the younger the player started.

The study, meanwhile, continues to add to mounting evidence linking football with brain injuries and emotional issues for current and former players due to head trauma involved in the game's many hits to the head. Pop Warner, the most established youth football organization in the country, has reduced the amount of contact in practice - where the majority of head hits occur - and changed game rules, including banning kickoffs, one of the most unsafe plays in the game.

"That's a critical period of brain development, especially in males", said Alosco.

By the authors' own analysis, the findings "should not be used to inform safety and/or policy decisions in regards to youth football", and more studies are needed. "We then need to consider if it makes sense to drop our children off at a field where they put on a large plastic helmet and face mask, making them a bobblehead, and hit their heads against other players and the ground hundreds of times in a season". "It is unknown what effects such changes might have in relation to a study like this, but reducing the number of times kids hit their heads playing football is likely a good thing". None of the participants in that study showed signs or symptoms of concussions, and the players who suffered more hits saw more significant changes to the brain. "Pop Warner coaches are mandated to train in USA Football's "Heads Up Football" program, where safer approaches to tackling and blocking are taught".

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