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Study: Tackle football before 12 speeds onset of brain disease

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP June 11, 2019

After doctors determined that a series of seemingly minor concussions could cause the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the families of 246 deceased football players donated their loved ones’ brains for study. That research is taking place at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System.

Those researchers have just released new findings. It appears that when players who play tackle football before age 12 develop CTE, they tend to develop the disease an average of 13 years earlier than those who started playing later. The earlier the player began receiving blows to the head, the earlier that player would develop the brain disease.

“It makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads hundreds of times per season,” notes the chief of neuropathology at the Boston VA Healthcare System.

CTE is thought to be caused by repeated trauma to the head and is commonly found in players of full-contact sports and in military veterans. It can cause cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems and can worsen into full-blown dementia.

Earlier onset doesn’t necessarily mean greater risk or severity

The researchers emphasize that not all tackle football players will develop CTE. However, the rate of CTE among football players does appear high. Of the 246 brains studied, 211 showed signs of the disease. The study includes brains from professional and semi-pro players along with people who played only through high school or college. It is not yet known how representative the sample is of football players overall.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, although the onset of CTE was much earlier in players who began before age 12, it is not clear that they experienced a more severe form of the disease. It is also not clear that they were more likely to develop CTE than players who started later in life.

That said, the researchers found that CTE was not the only degenerative brain disease potentially caused by repeated blows to the head. They found evidence of other neuropathies, including Alzheimer’s disease.

These findings, which appear in the online journal Annals of Neurology, contribute to a growing body of evidence that playing contact football — especially at a young age — risks serious, long-term harm to the brain. If you are a parent considering whether to allow your child to play football, you should seriously consider this risk.