A new study co-authored by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher has found an association between participation in youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life. The study appears in Nature’s Translational Psychiatry.
Researchers from Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center studied 214 former American football players, including 43 who played only through high school and 103 who played only through college. The average age of the former players at the time of the study was 51. Participants received telephone-administered cognitive tests and completed online measures of depression, behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning (initiating activity, problem-solving, planning and organization). Results from former players who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 were compared against those of participants who started playing at age 12 or later.
The study showed that participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold. The increased risk was independent of the total number of years the participants played football, the number of concussions they reported, or whether they played through high school, college, or professionally.
The new study follows previous research from the BU CTE Center that examined former professional players. In those studies, the former NFL players who started tackle football prior to age 12 had worse memory and mental flexibility, as well as structural brain changes on MRI scans, compared to former players who began at age 12 or older.