A new study is finding that if NFL players started playing football before the age of 12, they suffer far worse memory and thinking problems into adulthood.
This Sunday, the television extravaganza of the year takes place – the 2015 Super Bowl. But as you sit down to enjoy the game, spare a thought for the players; a new study finds that if they started playing football before the age of 12, they may be more likely to have memory and thinking problems as adults.
In tackle sports such as football, blows to the head are expected. It is projected that emergency departments in the US treat 173,285 sports and recreation related traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) – such as a concussion, each year among children and adolescents under the age of 19.
But how do such injuries sustained during childhood affect the brain later in life? This is a question that many dispute. Some studies have suggested that children may recover better from head injuries than adults because their brain is still developing, but other research has suggested the opposite is true.
In this latest study, published in the journal Neurology, senior author Robert Stern and colleagues from the Boston University School of Medicine, MA, set out on a journey to gain a better understanding of how brain injuries sustained in childhood impact cognitive function in adulthood.
To reach their findings, the team analyzed 42 former National Football League (NFL) players aged 40 to 69 who had been experiencing thinking and memory problems for at least 6 months.
About half of the participants began playing football before the age of 12, while the remaining participants started playing after this age. Both groups had sustained a comparable number of concussions throughout their career.
The team says they used age of 12 as a break-off point between the two groups as this is the age at which brain development tends to peak in boys. Stern explains there is a considerable rise in blood flow to the brain around this age, which triggers peak volume in brain structures like the hippocampus – important for memory.
All participants were required to complete a number of tests that measured their verbal IQ, memory and executive function. The team found that the participants who started playing football before the age of 12 performed up to 20% worse on all tests, compared with those who started playing football after the age of 12. The results remained significant even after the researchers accounted for the total number of years the participants had played football.
The team notes that they were particularly interested in the results of a reading test – called the Wide Range Achievement Test, 4th edition (WRAT-4). This test evaluates a person’s ability to pronounce words correctly.
The team hypothesizes that the much lower scores on the WRAT-4 test found among participants who began playing football before the age of 12 may be a sign that repeated head trauma during childhood limits intelligence in adulthood; though they say further research in this area is required.
Stern says, “Our study suggests that there may be a critical window of brain development during which repeated head impacts can lead to thinking and memory difficulties later in life. If larger studies confirm this association, there may be a need to consider safety changes in youth sports.”
The researchers say that since the study only included NFL players, it may not be a fair comparison to other populations. In any case, they say their findings help shed light on the potential later-life impact childhood brain trauma may have.
Football has the highest injury rate among team sports. 70% of all football players in the United States are under the age of 14 and every child aged 9-12 can be exposed to 240 head impacts during a single football season.
The study did not account for the total number of head impacts each player had in their careers, therefore it is possible that the number of impacts is responsible for the reported results rather than the early age of exposure to football.
Author: Blaine Pollock
Philanthropist and Businessman, Blaine Pollock is the creative force behind World News MD/Depression.net. Blaine is also the author of the newly released Children’s Book “O My Walter”. Find the magical book, “O My Walter” at www.omywalter.com