Two new studies presented this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) both show that school-age football players with a history of concussion and high-impact exposure undergo brain changes after just one season of play.
The first study looked at youth football players ages 9-13, and the second looked at high school football players; both studies found changes in brain function correlating to concussions and high-impact contact.
Given this information, is it truly “safe” for parents to let their children play football?
“Research suggests that incurring repeated head impacts through collision and contact sports can lead to long-term neurological consequences, and we should be doing what we can at all levels in all sports to minimize these repeated hits,” Michael Alosco, PhD, a clinical neuropsychology fellow at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Research Center and an expert on the impact of concussion and high-impact injury in youth football, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Alosco explains that previous research from Boston University that looked at former NFL football players who started tackle football before the age of 12 had a worse memory and mental flexibility, as well as structural brain changes on MRI scans, compared with former players who began at age 12 or older.
Most recently, Alosco notes, in a study of 214 former amateur and professional football players, participation in tackle football before age 12 was shown to have doubled the odds of having problems with behavior regulation, apathy, and executive function and tripled the odds for clinically elevated depression scores.
“These findings were independent of the total number of years the participants played football or at what level they played, such as high school, college, or professional,” says Alosco. “Other research outside of BU has also found that a single season of youth football can lead to changes seen in MRI scans, even without any concussions.”
Alsoco explains that children’s brains in particular are uniquely susceptible to this kind of harm.
“The brain undergoes key periods of brain development during childhood, and several brain structures and functions reach peak development during the period leading up to the age of 12 in males,” he says. “Being hit in the head repeatedly through tackle football during critical times of brain development may increase vulnerability to later-life emotional and behavioral difficulties. It makes sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads over and over again.”
Alosco continues, “Parents do so much to protect their children from injury and illness. They do so much to assure that their children reach their full potential. 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 facemask and hit their heads against other players and the ground hundreds of times in a season. There may be long-term consequences associated with experiencing these repeated hits during childhood. However, much more research, particularly longitudinal studies, are needed to truly understand the association between youth football and long-term neurological consequences.”
But, Alosco concludes, “it is really important to note that participation in sports and athletics can have so many important benefits, including the development of leadership skills, self-confidence, social skills, and work ethic, not to mention the tremendous health benefits from exercising. There are safer alternatives, like flag football, and our goal is to make sure that children can take advantage of all of the benefits of sports participation without the risk of difficulties later in life.”
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