YOUR HEALTH: The risks of young kids playing contact football

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A study out of Boston University’s School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System is sounding a warning for parents of young football players, after studying the brains of almost 250 football players.

Eleven-year-old Rowen Ball is a soccer player. It wasn’t his first choice.

Rowen’s dad, Jason Ball, said, “When he turned eight or nine, he really, really wanted to play full-contact football. Just couldn’t let him do that.”

Rowen already had two concussions, and his dad didn’t want to risk him suffering more.

“I understood most of it, because my dad would explain it a lot to me when I always asked him if I could play. Which was a lot,” Rowen shared.

In a new study out of Boston, researchers examined the brains of 246 football players, 211 of them had CTE.

They found that those who started playing football before age 12 increased their risk of CTE.

Researcher Michael Alosco says, “That younger age of first exposure appears to increase vulnerability to the effects of CTE and other brain diseases, meaning it influences when cognitive, behavioral, and mood symptoms begin.”

BACKGROUND:   Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.   In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells.   CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts.   Early symptoms of CTE usually appear in a patient's late twenties or thirties and affect a patient's mood and behavior.   Some common changes seen include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.   As the disease progresses some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia. (Source: https://concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE)

Dr. Vernon B. Williams, Director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic warns not to draw conclusions prematurely.

“I don’t ignore this information, but I think it’s only a piece of the information, and it needs to be considered in the context of the bigger picture. And in the context of what we don’t yet know,” Dr. Williams said.

Dr. Williams adds today’s players have better helmets and safety measures than players in the study did. Still, Jason doesn’t regret keeping Rowen out of contact football.

RECOMMENDATION:   "There is a recommendation that children under the age of 14 shouldn't play tackle football," says senior author Ann McKee, a Boston University School of Medicine professor of neurology and pathology and chief of neuropathology at Boston VA Healthcare System.   "This paper would provide some support for that."   The research adds to a growing body of evidence pointing to the dangers of repeated head trauma, especially in young athletes, and it appears to validate increasing concern among parents and players.   The number of American kids ages six to 12 playing tackle football dropped to 1,217,000 in 2016, down slightly from 1,262,000 in 2015, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.   Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the world, has officially limited contact during practices since 2012. (Source: https://www.bu.edu/today/2018/youth-football-linked-to-earlier-brain-problems/?utm_campaign=bu_today_2018&utm_source=email_0501&utm_medium=headline_1&utm_content=research_brain)

“I love my boys, and I want them to have the same quality of life they have now as they do in their forties and in their sixties.” Jason explained.

Michael Alosco cautions that this is a single study, but kids whose brains are developing shouldn’t be hitting their heads repeatedly.

He also says parents should make sure that their kids’ coaches are minimizing risk and repeated hits to the head.

And parents and their kids should know the signs of concussion.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.