Starting to play tackle football before age 12 could lead to earlier onset of cognitive and emotional symptoms among athletes who were diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and other brain diseases postmortem, according to a new study co-authored by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher.
The findings appear online in the journal Annals of Neurology.
The researchers found that among 211 football players who were diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease CTE after death, those who began tackle football before age 12 had an earlier onset of cognitive, behavior, and mood symptoms by an average of 13 years.
“This is one more piece of evidence in our increasing stock of knowledge that earlier exposure to receptive head impacts is related to later life cognitive impairment” says co-author Dr. Yorghos Tripodis, research associate professor of biostatistics at BUSPH.
It is noteworthy that, although age of first exposure to tackle football was associated with early onset of cognitive and emotional problems, it was not associated with worse overall severity of CTE pathology, Alzheimer’s disease pathology, or other pathology. In addition, earlier symptom onset was not restricted to those diagnosed with CTE. The relationship was similar for the former football players without CTE who had cognitive or behavioral and mood changes that may have been related to other diseases.
Data were collected by conducting telephone interviews with family members and/or friends to determine the absence or presence, and age of onset, of cognitive, behavior, and mood symptoms. The interviewers did not know the neuropathological findings, and the neuropathologists did not know the individuals’ histories.
Although the study supports the idea that there may be long-term consequences associated with experiencing repeated hits to the head during childhood, the researchers stress that it is unclear if their findings generalize to the broader tackle football population and that much more research, particularly prospective longitudinal studies, is needed to understand the association between youth football and long-term consequences.