Super Bowl Inspires Youngsters to Play Football, but They Face Brain Injury Risks

This year's Super Bowl was one of the most exciting match-ups in years, and it no doubt inspired many young kids to try out for their local Pop Warner teams. Unfortunately, a recent study by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine found that playing the game before age 12 might lead to memory and cognitive problems when young footballers reach adulthood.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, looked at 42 former NFL players, half of whom  started playing football before age 12. Interestingly, the number of concussions suffered by both groups was similar. While all of the players involved in the study had some cognitive impairment, it was significantly worse among those who'd taken to the gridiron early. The impairment was up to 20 percent more severe in the early starters.

A Critical Development Stage

The researchers focused on age 12 because that's the time when boys have significant peaks in brain development. This includes increased blood flow to the brain and a peak in volume for brain structures such as the hippocampus, which is linked to memory. This stage is also a critical time in myelination, or coating of the long tendrils of brain cells with a fatty sheath, which allows neurons to communicate quickly and efficiently. This perfect storm of brain development means that boys at this age are particularly vulnerable to damage caused by physical head trauma.

The study's senior author is Robert Stern, a professor of neurology, neurosurgery, anatomy and neurobiology, and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s Clinical Core. Stern says that another study found that a group of football players between the ages of 9 and 12 received an average of 240 high-magnitude hits per season. Some of those hits had as much force as those experienced by high school and college players.

Problems With Protection

Even the best helmets don't offer sufficient protection, as this video on WebPsychology shows. And when kids are older, they're still at risk. Concussions are alarmingly common when they reach the high school level. A recent study found that over 2,500 high school football players suffered concussions in the 2012-2013 season. Six percent of those resulted from impacts to the tops of their heads, the type that most commonly causes loss of consciousness. Another study showed that playing just one season of high school football affected the brain's white matter, even when the players didn't suffer concussions.

Participating in team sports like football has a number of benefits. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that young athletes are less likely to smoke or use drugs. They have better attendance records, higher standardized test scores, and have a lower risk of dropping out of school. If your child wants to play football or another sport, weigh the pros and cons to make to make the best choice for your family.