A new study of NFL players with memory and thinking problems potentially associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI) has found that football players who started playing the sport before age 12 were more likely to exhibit damage to white matter tract of the brain – a likely precursor to degenerative brain diseases – than players who started the sport after age 12.
The study, conducted by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and published online in in the Journal of Neurotrauma, looked at a group of 40 NFL players between ages 40 and 65 who had played organized football for at least 12 years, with at least two of those years in the NFL.
Half of the players started playing tackle football before age 12 and the other half started playing after they turned 12. All of the players had suffered a similar number of concussions and they all showed problems with remembering and thinking for at least six months.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on the players, researchers looked at the movement of water molecules along the brain’s white matter tract – the main channels through which the brain relays commands and other information. Players who started football before age 12 – when the brain was still in its most developmental stage – more often showed changes to the white matter tracts in the area of the brain that connects the two hemispheres.
Repeated head injuries over time have caused several NFL players to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that manifests a spectrum of symptoms, including dementia, cognitive decline, memory loss, mood swings, depression, and suicidal inclinations.
The study’s findings support a growing body of evidence that a “critical window” exists in brain development for children between age 10 and 12. Other studies indicate it’s at this age that concussions and other head injuries can impede development and set the stage for future neurological problems.
“This development process may be disrupted by repeated head impacts in childhood possibly leading to lasting changes in brain structure,” lead study author Julie Stamm explained.
“Previous research by the research team published in January found that former NFL players who started playing tackle football before age 12 were at a higher risk of developing mood, behavioral, or cognitive impairment later in life than those who took up the game after age 12,” BU Today reported.
The implications of these findings for youth football have yet to be seen, but already some of those familiar with the research suggest the sport may be too risky for kids. As BU Today notes, NFL legend Mike Ditka told Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel that if he had an 8-year-old son, would he allow him to play football?
“Nope,” Ditka told Gumbel. “That’s sad. I wouldn’t, and my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward.”
Source: BU Today