The growing consensus among researchers is that chronic traumatic encephalopathy can develop no matter how long or how hard athletes play tackle football, leading to memory loss, dementia, and severe cases of depression that can even lead to suicidal outcomes. A new study suggests that playing tackle football before the age of 12 can be particularly problematic for budding athletes.
Set to be published in the Annals of Neurology, the study found that playing tackle football at an early age was linked to early onset chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. To be clear, players who started football as a child or adolescent did not suffer more severe cases of CTE, but it did mean that individuals would report symptoms of CTE at an earlier age — approximately two and a half years earlier than their peers for every one year younger.
Athletes who began playing tackle football before the age of twelve, for example, experienced CTE symptoms over 13 years earlier than those who started playing later in life.
Supporting these findings, the authors cited evidence that living NFL players who began playing tackle football before they turned 12 years of age were significantly worse off by middle age, cognitively speaking than their teammates who started playing later in their youth.
The authors also suggested that early exposure to tackle football may lead to less neurological resiliency later in life. Researchers have even linked playing a single season of tackle football between the ages of 8 and 13 to changes in white matter, which scientists have undeniably associated with CTE.
Football and CTE
The study analyzed neuropathological data from nearly 250 tackle football players. A vast majority were diagnosed with CTE, mirroring the findings of a 2017 study that found that 110 out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players had CTE. This high-profile study launched CTE to the front page of national periodicals. It’s worth noting that the study also linked CTE to the semi-professional, college, and high school levels of play, not just to contact sustained at the professional level.
Though we think of CTE as the consequence of sustaining a severe concussion (or several concussions), one study emphasized that football players endure up to 86 head impacts in a single game of football even without a collision defined as a concussion. Repeated shocks upon the head may be more damaging to children and adolescents than to adults because their brains are still developing, according to researchers exploring the issue.
American football is indeed not the only contact sport that investigators have linked to clinical impairments in athletes, but research data available to experts indicates that the game uniquely puts individuals at risk, compared to other hard-hitting sports like ice hockey and rugby.
At this time, scientists are unable to diagnose CTE in living patients. However, a recent study was able to measure specific changes in the brain that typically accompany CTE in college-aged athletes. Experts are exploring whether these early brain scans can be used to establish an “exposure threshold” to help doctors and their athlete patients determine when to quit contact sports as a way to prevent the onset of CTE.
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