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Playing Tackle Football Before Age 12 May Cause Significant Brain Injury

Posted September 22, 2017

By Jonathan A. Karon

In a study published earlier this week, Boston University researchers found that playing tackle football before age 12 may substantially increase the risk of cognitive and behavior problems as well as depression later in life. The study surveyed 214 former football players, all of whom began playing tackle football before age 12. The participants had not participated in any other contact sports and varied in their highest level of competition (specifically 43 played through high school, 103 played through college and 68 played in the National Football League).

The study found that at least for the players sampled, those who started playing football before age 12 had over a two times greater risk of “meaningful” impairments in “behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and over three times increased risk for depression. They found that these odds were “independent of age, education and duration of football play.” Generally, the younger the “Age of First Exposure” to football (abbreviated as “ATE” in the study) the worse the participants scored on measures of behavioral regulation, depression, apathy, executive function and depression.

The study does not identify “the specific mechanisms” causing these findings, but notes that the brain undergoes important development between ages 9 and 12. According to Dr. Robert Stern, of the Boston University School of Medicine, one of the authors, as quoted in the New York Times, “The brain is going through this incredible time of growth between the years of 10 and 12 and if you subject that developing brain to repetitive head impacts, it may cause problems later in life.” Accordingly, the authors theorize that the age of first exposure to football “may contribute to why some former American football players develop long term clinical impairments, whereas others appear more resistant.”

The authors noted certain limitations in their findings. For example, this was not a study of the risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed after death. They also caution against using findings from their study “to inform safety and/or policy decisions in regards to youth football” advising that additional studies are needed to understand the long term neurological impact of playing youth tackle football. Nonetheless, parents can be legitimately concerned about the safety of allowing their children to play tackle football before high school.

The study is entitled “Age of first exposure to American football and long-term neuropsychiatric and cognitive outcomes” and was published on September 19, 2017 in the journal Translational Psychiatry. It can be found on-line at


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