By Barbara Moran
As the 100 million viewers tuning in to this Sunday’s Super Bowl can attest, Americans adore football. And for many, the love affair begins in childhood: Pop Warner Tiny-Mites start as young as age 5, and many adults retain warm memories and friendships from their youth football days.
But a new study from BU School of Medicine researchers points to a possible increased risk of cognitive impairment from playing youth football. The National Institutes of Health–funded study, published online in the Jan. 28 edition of the journal Neurology, finds that former National Football League players who participated in tackle football before the age of 12 are more likely to have memory and thinking problems as adults.
The study contradicts conventional wisdom that children’s more plastic brains might recover from injury better than those of adults, and suggests that they may actually be more vulnerable to repeated head impacts, especially if injuries occur during a critical period of growth and development.
“Sports offer huge benefits to kids, as far as work ethic, leadership and fitness, and we think kids should participate,” says study lead author Julie Stamm (MED’15), a PhD candidate in anatomy and neurobiology. “But there’s increasing evidence that children respond differently to head trauma than adults. Kids who are hitting their heads over and over during this important time of brain development may have consequences later in life.”
“This is one study, with limitations,” adds study senior author Robert Stern, a MED professor of neurology, neurosurgery and anatomy and neurobiology and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s Clinical Core. “But the findings support the idea that it may not make sense to allow children—at a time when their brain is rapidly developing—to be exposed to repetitive hits to the head. If larger studies confirm this one, we may need to consider safety changes in youth sports.”
In the study, researchers reexamined data from BU’s ongoing DETECT (Diagnosing and Evaluating Traumatic Encephalopathy Using Clinical Tests) study, which aims to develop methods of diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during life. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease often found in professional football players, boxers and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. It can currently be diagnosed only by autopsy.
For this latest study, scientists examined test scores of 42 former NFL players, with an average age of 52, all of whom had experienced memory and thinking problems for at least six months. Continue reading