Picture a football player. If you’re anything like me, you’re imaging a 20-something man well over six feet tall who could outrun a gazelle and bench press his body weigh several times over.
But this simply isn’t true—70 percent of all football players are younger than 14 years old. Given that children ages 9-12 can be exposed to 240 head impacts during a single season, it is reasonable for parents to be concerned. And new findings about youth football from researchers at Boston University School of Medicine seem to underscore the need to figure this out.
At age 12, many American children are in middle school, a time of immense personal growth and struggle. This age is also immensely important, as many researchers believe young boys’ brains have completed key developmental milestones. The researchers from Boston University used this age as a benchmark in their study.
The research, published in the journal Neurology, was based on a battery of neuropsychological tests given to 42 former National Football League (NFL) players, average age of 52, who had experienced problems with their thinking for six months or longer. The study included two groups, both with similar numbers of reported concussions—half the players started playing tackle football before age 12, and the other half began at 12 or older.
The study reports that the players who started playing before age 12 performed “significantly worse” on every test measure after taking into account how many years they played and their age at the time of taking the test. Those who played tackle football before age 12 recalled fewer words from a list they had learned 15 minutes earlier, and their mental flexibility was diminished compared to players who began tackle football after age 12. The researchers found that both groups scored below average on multiple tests, and that the players who started tackle football earlier displayed a roughly 20 percent difference on several measures compared to those who started competing later.
The study, while compelling, must be taken in light of important limitations. First off, the number of players in the study was relatively small. Moreover, the total amount of head trauma suffered by each player cannot be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. It is always possible one group may be misreporting or misremembering certain characteristics, not to mention the severity of the event. A more rigorous study would be required to tease out a very important detail: are we seeing the end-effect of age or accumulation? That is to say, should we be focused on the age at which our kids start playing football or is there a threshold of concussions that triggers cognitive decline? The answer is probably that both variables are key determinants of mental longevity, but this study doesn’t necessarily prove one or the other—simply that we have the intrigue and suspicion to justify a more rigorous investigation of age and concussions.
In any context, this study will raise eyebrows, particularly following a recent poll from Bloomberg that found that 50 percent of Americans surveyed would not want their son to play competitive football. This recent study is yet another warning of the consequences related to a lifestyle of repeated blows to the head. It joins research we have discussed previously regarding the long-term impact of a career in contact sports and the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Parents, it is now up to you to decide. There are things about concussions we know and there are things we don’t. But I suspect that future studies will demonstrate the cumulative effect of concussions is a main determinant of cognitive health.