Tackle football may have lasting effects on young brains, study suggests

Nov. 6, 2017—Youth tackle football is taking a hit. New research shows that kids who play before age 12 are at higher risk for cognitive impairment and mood problems later on.

The study involved 214 former American football players with an average age of 51. Some only played through high school, while others played through college or professionally.

The researchers set out to find how playing football at a younger age affected players' brain health. To do this, they had the subjects take four tests:

  • A 20-minute phone call where researchers tested subjects' language and reasoning skills.
  • A 75-item online survey that measured subjects' executive function behaviors, such as problem solving, planning and organization.
  • A 20-item online checklist where subjects rated themselves on symptoms of depression.
  • An 18-item online checklist where subjects rated themselves on symptoms of apathy.

The researchers compared the test results of subjects who started playing tackle football before age 12 to those who didn't play until after age 12. What they found:

  • Those who participated in football before age 12 were more than twice as likely to have problems with executive function, apathy and regulating their behavior.
  • They were also more than 3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
  • The younger the players started, the more likely they were to have mood and behavior problems as adults.

These risks occurred no matter how many years the subjects played tackle football or how many concussions they had.

Young brains on football

This isn't the first study to suggest that starting tackle football before age 12 could have a negative impact on brain function. Experts know that age 9 to 12 is a peak growth period for neurological development in the male brain.

Estimates show that the average youth football player has around 250 head impacts per season. Being subjected to those repeated hits could have a harmful effect long-term, the researchers said.

The study didn't look at chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated head injuries. CTE can only be diagnosed after death. But this study does suggest that kids can suffer from some brain damage when they begin playing tackle football early in life.

The findings were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Keeping kid players safe

Should you let your child play tackle football? Experts recommend weighing the health risks with the benefits. If playing seems like the right option, make sure your athlete does it safely. Here's what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests:

  • Players should learn the right way to apply and absorb tackles.
  • Coaches and referees should enforce rules of proper tackling. That includes a no-tolerance policy for head-first hits.
  • A skilled athletic trainer should be on the sidelines for games and practices. This can help lower the number of injuries.

The AAP also recommends expanding non-tackling football leagues. If there's one in your area, consider encouraging your child to give it a try.