CTE and youth football: A dangerous combination

Published: Aug. 2, 2018 at 4:59 PM EDT
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A new study shows children who play contact football before age 12 suffer problems like chronic traumatic encephalopathy years earlier than other children do.

NewsCenter 16's Maureen McFadden finds out what the results mean to researchers, a sports neurologist and a youth football participant's father.

A study out of Boston University’s School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System is sounding a warning for parents of young football players, after studying the brains of almost 250 football players.

Eleven-year-old Rowen Ball is a soccer player. It wasn’t his first choice.

“When he turned 8 or 9, he really, really wanted to play full-contact football," said Jason Ball, Rowen's dad. "Just couldn’t let him do that.”

Rowen already had two concussions, and his dad didn’t want to risk him suffering more.

“I understood most of it, because my dad would explain it a lot to me when I always asked him if I could play. Which was a lot,” Rowen said.

In a new study out of Boston, researchers examined the brains of 246 football players; 211 of them had CTE. They found that those who started playing football before age 12 increased their risk of CTE.

Researcher Michael Alosco said “that younger age of first exposure appears to increase vulnerability to the effects of CTE and other brain diseases, meaning it influences when cognitive, behavioral and mood symptoms begin.”

Sports neurologist Vernon Williams warns not to draw conclusions prematurely.

“I don’t ignore this information, but I think it’s only a piece of the information and it needs to be considered in the context of the bigger picture," Williams said. "And in the context of what we don’t yet know.”

Williams added that today’s players have better helmets and safety measures than players in the study did. Still, Jason doesn’t regret keeping Rowen out of contact football.

“I love my boys, and I want them to have the same quality of life they have now as they do in their 40s and in their 60s,” the father said.

Michael Alosco cautions that this is a single study, but children whose brains are developing shouldn’t be hitting their heads repeatedly.

He also says parents should make sure that their children's coaches are minimizing risk and repeated hits to the head. And parents and their children should know the signs of concussion.




REPORT: MB #4452

BACKGROUND: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts. Early symptoms of CTE usually appear in a patient's late twenties or thirties and affect a patient's mood and behavior. Some common changes seen include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. As the disease progresses some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.

(Source: https://concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE)

STUDY BACKGROUND: A new study by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine suggests that playing youth tackle football may lead to earlier onset of cognitive, behavior, and mood symptoms in later life. The researchers conducted telephone clinical interviews with family and friends of 246 deceased football players and found that those who began tackle football before age 12 experienced symptoms an average of 13 years earlier than those who started playing at age 12 or older. The researchers, who controlled for total years of play and level of play and factored in what decade athletes started playing (to account for different styles of play and protection through the years), found that each year younger that athletes began to play tackle football correlated with an earlier onset of cognitive problems by 2.4 years, and behavioral and mood problems by 2.5 years.

(Source: https://www.bu.edu/cte/2018/04/30/youth-football-linked-to-earlier-brain-problems/)

RECOMMENDATION: “There is a recommendation that children under the age of 14 shouldn’t play tackle football,” says senior author Ann McKee, a Boston University School of Medicine professor of neurology and pathology and chief of neuropathology at Boston VA Healthcare System. “This paper would provide some support for that.” The research adds to a growing body of evidence pointing to the dangers of repeated head trauma, especially in young athletes, and it appears to validate increasing concern among parents and players. The number of American kids ages six to 12 playing tackle football dropped to 1,217,000 in 2016, down slightly from 1,262,000 in 2015, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the world, has officially limited contact during practices since 2012.

(Source: https://www.bu.edu/today/2018/youth-football-linked-to-earlier-brain-problems/?utm_campaign=bu_today_2018&utm_source=email_0501&utm_medium=headline_1&utm_content=research_brain)