There are two conversations going on in the world of football right now. One is about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. The second is around brain injuries, and the high level of concussions that football players are exposed to. Football fan or not, it’s been pretty difficult to avoid these two topics. However, the dialogue about football brain injuries has been predominantly focused on concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries.
A new study published in Translational Psychiatry is looking at what happens before the concussions. Doctors at Boston University took a look at what happens early on when a child begins to play tackle football before the age of 12. What they found is worrisome to anyone with a young child interested in, or already playing, the game.
Researchers took a sampling of 214 former American football players. These men played at all different levels. Some only played as children while others only played in high school. Several played in college and even the pros. The average age was 51. Doctors and researchers conducted telephone interviews and sent out questioners. They did not look at CT scans. They simply wanted to know about behavior.
What they found was that men who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had three times the odds of suffering from clinical depression, and two times the chance of suffering from clinical apathy and behavioral deregulation. Many also struggled with executive functioning and impulse control.
During an interview with WBUR, a Boston NPR affiliate, Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and co-author of this study, said, “We do all kinds of crazy things to make sure that they’re healthy … And then we drop them off at a field and put these helmets on and say, ‘Hit your head over and over again, 500, 600 times per season.’”
He’s got a valid point.
At first, I found that number staggering, unbelievable even. What he was referring too are sub-concussive hits. According to Brian Cammarota, ATC, PT, DPT, CSCS, a subconcussive hit is defined as a head impact that does not result in a clinical concussion. While the effects of these hits may not be immediately noticeable, this study looked at the potential long-term implications. Part of the issue is that the human brain is incredibly complex, and a significant part of its development begins before the age of 12. Subjecting a developing brain to repeated strikes, even with a helmet on, can result in long-term damage.
Dr. Robert Stern says, “Oh, they start really, really young. Pop Warner, USA Football. These kids start at age 5 and 6 putting on these big helmets with facemask that, you know, make them be bobbleheads. They can barely hold themselves up and yet then they’re asked to do these drills where they’re hitting their heads against each other, time after time after time. There’s around over a million youth tackle football players in our country.”
Now, please keep in mind, this study is far from conclusive. Naturally, there are plenty of variables that could change the results of their findings. It is, more or less, preliminary research that shows a connection between behavior and involvement in youth tackle football. The fact is we are not going to be able to keep our children out of sports and exercise. There is a lot to be gained from experience in youth athletics. Furthermore, football is not the only sport that produces a strong number of head injuries. Soccer, wrestling, and gymnastics can all produce multiple concussions.
However, Dr. Robert Stern does have this advice that I’d like to leave you with:
“[M]y recommendation is, think about [children hitting their heads 500 to 600 times per season]. You know, we can’t take our kids away from athletics and exercise and sports. That’s critical. They need to have that kind of exposure to great things, and physical and emotional benefits. But we need to remove their exposure to hits to the head over and over again.”
Given the research on CTE and brain trauma that’s now coming to light, I think we should heed his warning.