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Playing Youth Football Earlier Leads to Brain Damage

youth footballAt what age is it safest for kids to begin playing tackle football?  The current culture of parents obsessed with travel sports would have their child begin full contact as early as 5 years old.  But a new study of retired NFL players says you might want to hold off until at least age 12.

The National Football League recently agreed to pay $765 million for improved medical care and neurological testing to former players who claimed the league was aware, and ignored risks, of concussion injuries to players.  However, the damage may have been done long before the players reached the pros.

Researchers from Boston University found that former NFL players who began playing tackle football before age 12 showed greater decline in memory and cognitive function compared to former pros who began playing in their teens.

“It makes common sense that children, at a time of important brain development, should not be exposed to hundreds of hits to their heads,” Robert Stern, study author and a professor of neurology at the BU School of Medicine, told NBC News.

The researchers focused on age 12 as the significant cut off point because that’s the point of significant brain development, specifically for boys.  According to Stern, “blood flow to the brain increases, and brain structures such as the hippocampus, which is critical for memory, reach their highest volume.” Because of these changes, age 12 represents a “window of vulnerability when the brain may be especially sensitive to repeated trauma,” according to the BU researchers.

For this study, scientists examined 42 former NFL players, all of whom had suffered similar amounts of concussions over the course of their playing careers.  Half of the group began playing tackle football before age 12.  The participants were presented with a series of cognitive tests to measure any differences between the groups.

A reading test determined the ability read and pronounce words of increasing difficulty. A memory test presented a list of words and measured immediate and delayed recall. And a third test measured mental flexibility and problem solving through organizing a deck of cards.

The researchers found that the group that began playing tackle football prior to age 12 performed worse on all tests and as much as 20 percent below the group that began playing at an older age.

“We were surprised by how striking the results were,” said study co-author Julie Stamm, a BU PhD candidate in anatomy and neurobiology. “Every single test was significantly different, by a lot.” The study appears in the current issue of the journal Neurology.

In an accompanying editorial, Christopher M. Filley, a fellow with the American Academy of Neurology, writes that “every child aged 9 to 12 can be exposed to 240 head impacts during a single football season.”

There are almost 5 million kids participating in youth football.  As many as 3.8 million concussions occur annually due to participation in youth sports. The study researchers suggest increased study of the effects of early participation and increased safety precautions.

“No eight-year-old should play a sport with his friends and end up with long-term problems,” Stamm said. “We just want kids to play sports more safely.”

-Brad Broker

(Photo by Stuart Seeger via Flickr)

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