A new study suggests that the age at which boys begin playing football offers the strongest indicator yet as to who is at risk of long-term neurological problems. Conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine, the study shows that boys who start playing before the age of 12 “have more neurological issues (both cognitive and behavioral) as adults.”
The study’s authors examined 214 former football players with an average age of 51, whose participation in football ranged from the pros and college to high school and youth leagues. What they found was that the duration or how long the game was played was less important to neurological health than the “age of first exposure” or AFE.
Young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter.
This finding is particularly important given that many youth football leagues start boys as young as 5, an age when most physicians warn children’s bodies and particularly their skulls and brains, aren’t remotely prepared for full contact, let alone the kinds of repetitive collisions associated with football. (A study with similar findings from 2015 noted that “youth football players may incur hundreds of repetitive head impacts in one season.”)
Specifically, the Boston University study found that youth players “with an AFE before age 12 had greater than 2× increased odds for clinically meaningful impairments in reported behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive function, and greater than 3× increased odds for clinically elevated depression scores, compared with those who began playing at 12 or older.”
Coming on the heels of other studies showing similar problems in the brains of children who start playing before the age of 12, it is little wonder participation rates in youth football are plummeting. While there has been an extensive focus on the impact of concussions, neurologists and healthcare professionals increasingly are concerned about the impact of those “hundreds” of sub-concussive impacts.
A 2016 study by Wake Forest School of Medicine used a combination of MRIs and Head Impact Telemetry System (a tool for tracking both the number and severity of helmet collisions) of 25 football players, ages 8-13. The authors looked at the brains of the kids before and after the season, and found “young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter.”
This most recent study is certain to add still more ammunition to an issue that many argue has contributed to a 20% decline in participation levels in youth football (ages 6-12) over the past eight years. The Chicagoland Youth Football League has experienced a 25% drop in registrations over the past decade, from nearly 10,000 kids to 7,500 last year.
The drop in youth football numbers has, in turn, impacted the high school level. Chicagoland’s home state of Illinois, for example, had more than 51,000 high school payers in 2007, but nine years later that number had shrunk to 42,682.
Some youth sports leagues recognize the concerns and are considering scrapping tackle football programs at least until kids are 12 or older. If studies continue to confirm the negative impact of tackle football on those under 12, it’s probably safe to assume those plans will become a reality. An important development given the overall decline in youth sports across the country.