Youth football and concussions: some good news?

Concussions and football have come up before, and the news so far has been discouraging. We want kids to stay active, and football is one of the most popular boys’ sports out there. But we know that some prominent professional athletes have had serious, cumulative brain damage from years of football – sometimes brain damage that has destroyed their lives. What about high school football, or football starting even earlier? Are we encouraging a sport that’s a cause of serious, lifelong disability?

A recent publication gives at least some reassurance. From the August 2017 issue of JAMA Neurology comes a study titled “Association of Playing High School Football with Cognition and Mental Health Later in Life.” It’s not a perfect, definitive study, but it’s got some solid long-term data.

Researchers have been studying a cohort of about 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates – students who graduated in 1957, so they’re now about 78 years old. Of those, about 2,700 have complete data, including formal testing of their mental condition at age 65 and 72. Tests were done on intelligence and brain functioning using several standard assessments, as well as testing for things like depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. They also went through the high school yearbooks to figure out which of these students played football (it turned out to be about 30 percent. Football was, and still is, big in Wisconsin.)

When the data was analyzed, it looks like football players were no more or less likely to have problems with dementia or mental illness 60+ years later; nor were they more likely to consume too much alcohol. What was different was that they were somewhat more likely to stay physically active (which may have protected them from memory problems as they became older.)

There are some shortcomings of a study like this. We don’t know which if any of the participants played football starting younger than high school, or which positions they played, or whether they had one or more concussions. And, I think even more significantly, it’s apparent that football now is played quite differently than in 1957. Players are bigger and stronger and faster, and collisions are more high-energy. It may be that there are more brain injuries happening now on high school football fields than there were back then.

Still, 60+ years is some great long-term follow-up. It’s good to know that at least one long-term study shows that football in high school isn’t associated with later cognitive or mental health problems. We still need to minimize concussion risks and identify and treat them correctly, but this study should provide some reassurance that high school football might not be so bad for high school brains.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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