Report: CTE, brain diseases can start sooner if tackle football is played before age 12

A new Boston University study has found that CTE and other brain diseases can start earlier if kids play tackle football before age 12. (Getty Images)
A new Boston University study has found that CTE and other brain diseases can start earlier if kids play tackle football before age 12. (Getty Images)

Pop Warner and other youth tackle football leagues have been popular around the United States for decades, with thousands of kids signing up to play each year.

A new study, though, is putting those leagues at risk.

Researchers who published a study in “Annals of Neurology” on Monday found that those who played tackle football before the age of 12 “had cognitive issues arise 13.39 years earlier, and behavioral and mood problems 13.28 years earlier than those who began to play at 12 or older.” It also found that cognitive problems occurred 2.4 years earlier, and mood problems 2.5 years earlier.

They concluded that for every year younger that a player starts to play tackle football, that player could experience chronic traumatic encephalopathy symptoms, or CTE, roughly 2.5 years earlier.

The study didn’t find a “statistically significant” link between the age the player started tackle football and the severity of CTE or other brain diseases, but simply that it is putting kids at a higher risk for those issues earlier in life.

“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, the director of Boston University’s CTE Center and an author of the study, told the Washington Post. “It makes common sense that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, should not be hitting their heads hundreds of times per season.”

The study, which was led by researchers from the VA Boston Healthcare System and the Boston University School of Medicine, looked at the backgrounds of 246 deceased football players and conducted interviews with family and friends to determine symptoms. Of those players, 211 were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths. Of those 211, 138 played professional football, 64 played in college, seven were high school players and two were semi-professional players.

“Younger age of first exposure to tackle football appears to increase vulnerability to the effects of CTE and other brain diseases or conditions,” Michael Alosco, an investigator at the BU Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the BU CTE Center, told USA Today. “That is, it influences when cognitive, behavioral, and mood symptoms begin. It is comparable to research showing that children exposed to neurotoxins [like lead] during critical periods of neurodevelopment can have earlier onset and more severe long-term neurological effects.”

McKee and the research team at Boston University have been researching CTE for years. McKee examined former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez’s brain last year and found that he had one of the most severe cases of CTE in someone his age that she and her team had ever seen.

She also published a study in July 2017 in which she examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. Of the 111 brains belonging to former NFL players, 110 had CTE.

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