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Kids who play youth football face cognitive issues 13 years earlier than others, per study

Alex Reimer
April 30, 2018 - 1:40 pm

Another landmark study says pre-teens who play tackle football are far likelier to experience crippling cognitive issues than their peers. 

On average, kids who take part in tackle football before age 12 are faced with neurological problems 13.39 years earlier than those who play at 12 or older, according to a new study commissioned by Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System, The results were published Monday in “Annals of Neurology.”

The study also finds pre-teens who ram heads on the gridiron combat mood swings and depression 13.28 years earlier. 

“Youth exposure to repetitive head impacts in tackle football may reduce one’s resiliency to brain diseases later in life, including, but not limited to, CTE,” Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center and one of the study’s authors, told USA Today in a statement. “It makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads hundreds of times per season.”

These results echo previous findings about the dangers of youth football. Last September, BU published a study that shows kids who participate in tackle football before turning 12 double their chances of developing behavior problems and triple their risk of experiencing depression. In light of these revelations, youth football participation continues to drop

For the most recent project, researchers examined 246 deceased football players, including 211 who were posthumously diagnosed with CTE. Out of the 211 players, 138 played professional football. 

That’s significant, because the majority of the study’s subjects played football for lengthy portions of their lives. Kids who stop playing football at the youth or high school level weren’t the focus of this project. 

But at this point, there is more than enough science to support the viewpoint that youth football should be abolished. In addition to the harrowing research, it’s just common sense to prevent pre-teens from knocking their heads into each other at the line of scrimmage.

“To ask football players to play before they can build upper-body strength is cruel, because you have to use your head—your head is gigantic when you’re a child,” Chris Nowinski, he co-director for BU’s CTE Center, told me in 2016. “There’s such a long list of reasons to not subject these poor kids to tackle football before high school.”

Legislation to ban tackle football before the age of 12 has been introduced in New York, Illinois and California. The bills have not gained much support.