Youth football playing may contribute to long-term cognitive, behavioral issues: BU study

An extension of Boston University’s pioneering CTE brain research [TTA 26 July] is this newly published study in Translational Psychiatry on cognitive and behavioral changes in former football players. This sampled 214 living former American football players who played high school, college or professional football and did not participate in any other organized contact sports. These players were recruited through BU’s LEGEND longitudinal research registry of living active and former contact and non-contact sports athletes to examine the short/long-term outcomes of repetitive head impacts (RHI). Participants in the program performed over time a battery of cognitive and functional tests. It also screened out those who self-reported concussion within one year of the study inception.

The findings point a very long finger at early tackle football playing in youth football programs, typically from age 5 to 14 when the brain is undergoing massive development. Below quotes are direct from the study:

  • Those who began playing football before age 12 had >2 × increased odds for clinically meaningful impairments in reported behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function, and >3 × increased odds for clinically elevated depression scores, compared with those who began playing at 12 or older.
  • Effects were independent of age, education and duration of football play.
  • Younger AFE (age of first exposure-Ed.) to football, in general, corresponded with worse behavioral regulation, depression, apathy and executive function, as well as increased odds for clinical depression and apathy.

To our knowledge, this study is the first to show a relationship between younger AFE to football and reported clinical dysfunction in a cohort that included both former amateur and professional football players. There was no difference in the effect of AFE by highest level of play. These findings validate and expand upon our previous work in a small, entirely distinct sample of former NFL players, and extend the influence of AFE to football on clinical function to former football players who only played through high school or college. Overall, this study provides further evidence that playing youth American football may have long-term clinical implications, including behavioral and mood impairments.

The study has an extensive discussion of brain development in the young and how ages 9-12 are critical. Two studies using helmet accelerometry on current youth American football players estimate 240 to 252 median head impacts per season.

There are a considerable number of caveats throughout the study, including the kind of protection available in past youth football for the average age respondent (51) and the self-reporting methodology. It is not a risk study for CTE, nor is it intended to advocate the reduction or elimination of youth football. It does advocate for more longitudinal studies. This Editor has attended at least two talks by the CTE Center’s Robert Stern, MD, and he has been never been content with limiting his study to either football or to purely concussive damage. 

Why is this research important to healthcare and to technology? (I’ll expand upon a previous closing.)

  • First, because repetitive brain trauma–concussive and sub-concussive–now has an even better-documented relationship to significant medical and behavioral conditions. This study is now another part of fundamental research to deepen our knowledge about the effects and long term brain outcomes of head trauma, whether from football, other contact sports, combat service (e.g. IED explosions), car accidents, and even repetitive actions by a person who is developmentally disabled.
  • Second, avoiding or minimizing head trauma in sports and warfare, plus correctly diagnosing and treating concussion and sub-concussion, are huge areas for technology about which this Editor has advocated for several years.
  • The message here is not that football is bad, but in the present state and starting age is played dangerously for long term brain development and the subsequent mental health of players. This does not exclude other high contact sports such as flag football, hockey and rugby–the orthopedist’s gift–and heading the ball in soccer. We need to know more, minimize it now, and both playing the game, with the aid of health tech, should be part of this.

Translational Psychiatry (Nature.com), STATNews has further analysis

Related reading: Our extensive backfile of CTE research coverage is here, including this Editor’s reports on Dr. Stern’s presentations at NYC MedTech and GCRI. 

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