Brain problems blamed on playing tackle football in youth

Enlarge  Youth Pee Wee football players wait to take the field. Getty | Kirby Lee

Enlarge Youth Pee Wee football players wait to take the field. Getty | Kirby Lee

The study, which was conducted by researchers from Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center and appears in Nature's Translational Psychiatry, looked at 214 former football players, and found that playing football before age 12 doubled the risk to have "problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning", and tripled the risk of "clinically elevated depression scores".

Athletes who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after they turned 12, a new study released on Tuesday showed. Researchers used phone interviews and online surveys with a sample of 214 former players (68 who played in the National Football League, 103 who played through college and 43 who played through high school).

But the recent study might intensify the debate over whether kids should play tackle football at all.

Robert Stern wanted to make it clear that the study wasn't focusing on single concussions, rather repetitive head trauma and extended exposure.

In addition, the Pop Warner spokesman provided "player safety" changes the organization has made in the game within the past year, including Pop Warner becoming the first "national football organization to eliminate kickoffs" and Pop Warner establishing "reduction of contact time in practice across all divisions".

While the NFL and others long denied a direct link between youth football and future physiological and psychological issues, its recent actions paint a different picture. The Boston Herald's Danny Ventura reported earlier this month high school football rosters in the commonwealth have hit a 10-year low.

The new study attempted to track the possible effects of youth football into later life.

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

The average age of the former players at the time of the study was 51. "At the same time, there is growing research on the effect of football on the brain, and we can't ignore it", he explained. But it should be one additional piece of information that can help decision makers - that is, parents - ask that very important question: "'What am I doing to make sure my kid is healthy and safe?' Having them go onto the field with a face mask and helmet and hit their heads a few 100 times during a season doesn't fit that equation".

Kosofsky said parents whose children played youth football and are younger than 12 should "take 'em out". These latest findings offer more evidence that kids should wait until puberty to put on the pads, if they're going to do it at all.

"We're talking about those tiny hits to the head, over and over repeatedly that don't necessarily result in symptoms, but we think are enough to cause injury to the brain", he explained. Julian Bailes, the current medical director for Pop Warner football, told the Globe.

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