Parents of kids who play football or who are thinking about playing football this fall, you might want to pay attention to a new study published in the “Annals of Neurology.”
The study from researchers at Boston University looked at donated brains from 246 football players. 211 of them had signs of CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That’s the disease that causes mood swings and dementia and causes former football players to either take their own lives or die from the symptoms.
The researchers looked at their brains to diagnose them for CTE, but they also asked people who knew the players at what age they started playing tackle football.
The players who started playing tackle football before age 12 reported functional impairment at a younger age than those who started playing tackle football later in their teen years. The age the players first played tackle football did not predict the severity of the disease, though.
“The data is reliable and should be looked at and considered very seriously,” says Dr. Michael Reardon of Child Neurology Consultants of Austin.
This study, he says, is another reason to be more concerned about all kids playing a sport like football, not just the ones that show up in his office with a concussion.
“Isolated episodes in which we are able to diagnose a concussion might not be as significant or important as the repetitive blows to the head over time even if they are not reaching the threshold of concussion,” he says. “The more often there are blows to the head and the harder they are, the more likely the brain might be affect by that.”
Even players that have never been diagnosed with a concussion have had signs of a slowing of cognitive function, he says.
Why aren’t we seeing the same level of impairment with other sports like basketball or cheerleading or volleyball, which both have a high rate of concussion? Reardon says that while basketball players sometimes run into one another head first by accident, they aren’t doing it at every single play. “It’s more of a rare event,” he says. “They can go weeks or months between episodes.”
That doesn’t happen with tackle football.
Reardon also worries about kids playing tackle football in the late elementary school and middle school ages because of the size differences among players. Some are bigger and more like high school players; some haven’t developed yet and are more like early elementary school players. Also, the head, neck and shoulders have not fully developed yet, creating more danger with each accelerated hit.
For kids who think that they are safe because they are wearing a helmet, Reardon says that a helmet does nothing to absorb the blow of a hit. Instead, it protects against a skull fracture but not a concussion or CTE. There are shock-absorbing materials being developed, but not for today’s helmets yet.
A helmet and face mask also can add to the risk of concussion or CTE, he says, because players feel invincible inside their helmet and face mask and might hit harder than if they weren’t wearing them.
“All evidence that’s mounting points to the idea that having a career in football is hazardous to your health,” Reardon says. “It’s bad for the brain.”
What is a parent of a child who loves playing football supposed to do?
- Try to put off and encourage coaches to put off tackle football for as long as possible — at least until middle school, Reardon says.
- Ask coaches to put off the amount of direct contact between players during drills at practice.
- Find a team that doesn’t require players to play both offense and defense. You want to give the brain breaks between plays.
- Remind kids that they need to sit out if they feel like they “got their bell rung” or are dizzy between plays or have blurry vision.
- Find coaches that are actively looking for signs of concussion or other signs of trauma to the brain.
- Find a sport like cross country or track for middle-schoolers that is a non-contact, no-collision sport.