Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Boston University study: Kids who play football triple their chances of suffering from depression later in life

Alex Reimer
September 19, 2017 - 12:22 pm

Boston University researchers have presented the most convincing evidence yet that playing contact football as an adolescent may lead to behavioral problems and brain damages later in life, per the Boston Globe

Scientists from BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center looked at 214 former football players who did not play any other organized contact sports, including 103 who played through college and 43 who played through high school. The other 68 played in the NFL. The average age of the subjects was 51. 

According to study’s results, which were published Tuesday in Nature magazine’s journal, Translational Psychiatry, there’s a “robust relationship between (playing football before age 12) and long-term clinical dysfunction.” Those who participate in tackle football before turning 12 double their chances of developing behavior problems and triple their risk of experiencing depression. 

Dr. Robert Stern, the director of clinic research for BU’s CTE center, said the findings should make parents pause before signing up their kids to play youth football. “Parents have a really hard decision to make, and they can’t say the science is there yet to make an easy decision based on just one study. “At the same time, there is growing research on the effect of football on the brain, and we can’t ignore it,” he explained.

Youth football organizations, including Pop Warner, have made numerous safety improvements in recent years. Still, participation is dropping across the country, including in Massachusetts. The Boston Herald’s Danny Ventura reported earlier this month high school football rosters in the commonwealth have hit a 10-year low.

This is the second landmark study from BU in three months. In July, the university’s acclaimed CTE center published findings that show the brains of 110 of 111 deceased ex-NFL players its scientists examined contain traces of the degenerative brain disease. 

There’s been mixed information about playing tackle football at the high school level, however. This summer, researchers found there was no definitive link between playing high school ball and brain trauma. It’s worth noting, though, the study’s authors only examined people who played high school football in the 1950s –– when players weren't nearly as athletic or built. 

Chris Nowinski, the co-director for of BU’s CTE Center and cofounder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told me last year playing high school football isn't particularly risky.  

“Only five percent of (high school players) go on to play in college and only a small percentage of those go on to play professionally,” he said. “Then, very few football players in this country would develop CTE. Four years of exposure is not going to be enough to start CTE in most people.”

But the chances for exposure increases dramatically when kids play youth football, of course. These latest findings offer more evidence that kids should wait until puberty to put on the pads, if they’re going to do it at all.