As anticipation mounts for Sunday’s Super Bowl, researchers investigating the impact of football on the brain have released another study questioning the sport’s safety, particularly for children.
Former NFL players who started playing the sport before age 12 fared worse in a battery of thinking tests than those who started playing later, according to the study, which was conducted by researchers at Boston University and published in Neurology journal.
While the study’s authors cautioned their subject group was limited – all former NFL players who have complained of cognitive, behavioral or mood problems – their findings suggest football is unsafe for children, said Robert Stern, a neurology professor at the school.
“This study supports the idea . . . that there may be later life consequences associated with childhood exposure to repetitive head impacts,” Stern said. “Regardless of the results, it makes logical sense that children whose brains are rapidly developing should not be hitting their heads over and over again.”
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Researchers tested 42 former NFL players – half of whom began playing the game before age 12 and half of whom started later – for memory, problem-solving ability and verbal intelligence using exercises such as giving them a list of words and asking them to recite them 15 minutes later. While all players tested below average for their age and education levels, the 21 who played football before 12 tested about 20 percent worse than their peers who started playing later in life.
Stacy Suskauer, a pediatrician who studies brain injuries in children, agreed the study’s findings are concerning but urged caution before drawing broad conclusions.
“I think we still have a lot to learn about how this knowledge really applies to the much larger population of children who play sports,” said Suskauer, who is the director of Brain Injury Rehabilitation Programs at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and was not involved with the study. “The data certainly needs to be replicated in larger groups.”
The former NFL players reported suffering similar numbers of concussions over their lives: an average of 392 per player who started before 12 and 370 for players who started at 12 or after, numbers Suskauer called “astonishing.”
The NFL, which has contributed to similar research in the past, paid for part of the travel expenses for former players participating in this test.
Millions of American children play football, with more than 225,000 registered in popular Pop Warner leagues. Josh Pruce, Pop Warner spokesman, said most of its players are between ages 5 and 11. Pruce extolled the benefits of learning proper tackling technique early in life.
“We want to get that instilled in kids at a young age, so they’re not learning bad things early on,” Pruce said. “It’s like learning to skate.”
Pop Warner has taken important steps to limit concussions, Pruce said. Players suspected of having concussions are forced to sit out until getting a doctor’s clearance, and contact is limited during practice. Researchers such as Stern, however, are skeptical whether that’s enough.
The research coming from Boston University’s CTE Center (named for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease found in many dead NFL players), has pointed to the possibility that repeated hits to the head – even those that don’t cause concussions – may cause brain damage.
“This is not just about concussions,” Stern said.
Stern agreed his team’s work is limited and said current and future studies will focus on players who stopped after college or high school or youth levels.
Even those tests will be limited by a lack of knowledge of how other factors – such as drug and alcohol use, socioeconomic status, and genetics – may contribute to cognitive problems researchers have found in former NFL players.
To really conclusively study the issue, Stern said, he would need a team of researchers working for about 50 years, following an entire community’s children through life. “It would take far too many years, lots of money and lots of patience,” Stern said. “But it’s critical.”