It seems as if not a week goes by that football and head injuries aren't in the news. Most recently, it was announced that former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez had a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE.) Hernandez committed suicide in prison for the murder of Odin Lloyd.
The brain damage, which can only be found definitively after death, has occurred in 99% of NFL players who were autopsied. New research from the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center shows that it's not only NFL players that are at risk. There is an association between impaired mood and behavioral issues, and playing tackle football before the age of 12
The team at the BU CTE Center studied 214 players who had varying amounts of time in the game. 43 of them played through high school and 103 continued in the game through college. Of the players involved in the study, the average age was 51. The players were divided by how early they began playing, either before the age of 12 or after 12. In cognitive testing and assessments of apathy, executive function, depression and other screenings those who began playing before turning 12 showed different results than those who had started the game later in life.
Among the players who started before reaching their 12th birthday, there was a two-fold increased risk of difficulties with regulating their behavior, increased apathy and higher scores on screenings that measure clinical depression. This uptick in psychological issues and behavioral struggles did not match up to how long a player had stayed in the game. In other words, it was the starting point of the play that seemed to matter most, not the stopping point. The increases in these factors were not related to injury rates or rates of reported concussions either.
Choosing to make the age of 12 the dividing line in the research was deliberate. Brain development in boys between the ages of 10-12 is a busy time. Cells are multiplying, and neural networks are forming, but in most cases, the brain reaches a key point at the age of 12. While the data was sorted by other age groups within the study, the clearest results were between the over 12 and under 12 comparisons. In general, the trend of the findings showed that the younger a player began the game, the more risk there was for poor outcomes in brain function and behavior later in life.
Michael Alosco, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at Boston University School of Medicine explained, "This study adds to growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to a greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences."
While the issue of CTE, which can cause debilitating memory loss, depression, anxiety and poor impulse control, research among former NFL players who started young but who are still alive, showed memory problems and structural brain abnormalities that showed up on MRI scans. Moving forward, the research team wants to find out if protective equipment can be redesigned or if rule changes in youth leagues should be reconsidered. The video below has more information, take a look.