Children who take up American football early ‘at greater risk of brain impairment’

Boston University researchers find those who start playing before 12 twice as likely to develop emotional and cognitive difficulties as those who start later

Children who start playing American football before the age of 12 are twice as likely to develop emotional and cognitive difficulties compared with those who start later, a Boston University School of Medicine study found.

The effects appeared regardless of whether players were professional or amateur, the number of years they had played, and their levels of educational attainment.

It really looks as if the developing brain is uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of traumatic injury inflicted by football, said Barry Kosofsky, director of the pediatric concussion clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian hospital, who was not involved in the study.

The research comes at the start of the National Football League season, and on the heels of Boston University research that found the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in all but one of 111 NFL players brains donated to science. The study is set to be published in the open journal Translational Psychiatry.

People that play long and hard but started later dont have the liability of people that started earlier, Kosofsky said. He called the results very worrisome.

The new research asked 214 adult men who played football either before or after age 12 to take a variety of emotional and cognitive tests. It is one of just a handful of studies that examine whether starting tackle football at a young age influences brain function later in life.

According to the study, men who played football before age 12 were more than twice as likely to have impaired scores for behavior regulation, apathy and executive functioning, compared to those who started after age 12. The same group was almost three times as likely to have elevated depression scores on cognitive tests.

All of those impairments are symptoms of CTE. The men in the study were not diagnosed with the disease, which can only be confirmed after death. All participants in the research were adults who had played football many years ago as children, before parents or coaches were aware of the risks of youth football. The research is just a snapshot, and cannot establish a causal link between youth football and cognitive impairments.

Though the numbers of youth football players have declined over the last decade, more than 1.2 million children between six and 12 years old played tackle football in 2015, according to USA Football.

We must avoid any kneejerk reactions to single studies, said Yorgos Tripodis, a research associate at Boston University who co-authored the study. But at the same time, research on the effect of football on the brain is at a point where it cant be ignored.

Tripodis asked whether, as a society, we should drop our children off at a field with a big plastic helmet and face mask, and hit their heads against others hundreds of times a season.

Others, including Bennet Omalu, the University of California neuropathologist who first linked football to CTE, went further. He called youth football tantamount to child abuse this month, and compared it to allowing a 12-year-old to smoke and drink.

The real issue is younger kids are bobbleheads: their heads are a bigger percentage of their body, said Kosofsky. If you have a big head and weak neck muscles, youre a setup, because a hit gets the brain, which is like custard, rattling around the head. The study did not examine why children younger than 12 might be more vulnerable to hits to the head.

Kosofsky said parents whose children played youth football and are younger than 12 should take em out.

The study comes at a politically sensitive time for the NFL. Only in 2016 did the league acknowledge a link between football and CTE. It also recently settled a $1bn class action lawsuit with retired players.

Just days after Boston Universitys widely covered July study on the brains of deceased players, the Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel quit. In prior years, other players, such as the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, said they would not let young children play football.

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