Is Football Bad for the Brain?

Article | The Houston Institute of Neurology for Kids

By: Jacob Marchesano

Football is one of the more popular spectator sports in the United States having formed in the late 1800’s at college campuses. It’s also considered a violent sport and over the years, the league has established new rules that make the game safer. However, even with the rules it’s inevitable to avoid brain injuries. Throughout one season of football, a brain is exposed to at least 240 head impacts. Although, getting involved in a team sport like football at a young age can be one of the best experiences you can have. But, with all the danger that surrounds the sport of football, we question if these injuries sustained in childhood can affect the brain later in life.

In a recent study done by the Boston University School of Medicine, colleagues wanted to get a better understanding of how brain injuries sustained in childhood impacts cognitive function in adulthood. The study analyzed 42 former national football league players aging between 40 and 69 who had recently been experiencing thinking and memory problems. Of the 42 players being analyzed, only half of them started playing football before the age of 12 while the other half of the group started playing after the age of 12. Yet, all of them had experienced the same amount of concussions throughout their career. The colleagues of the study determined that age 12 was the cut off year between the two groups because at that age brain development in boys tends to spike. Blood flow to the brain rises which triggers volume in brain structures such as the hippocampus, which is essential for memory. The players were required to complete a number of tests that measure their verbal IQ, memory and executive function. The team of colleagues found that participants who started playing football before age 12 performed up to 20% worse on all tests compared to those who began playing football after the age 12. Their findings helped shed light on the potential impact childhood brain trauma may have on someone’s life down the road. Although, it’s possible that the number of concussions a player sustains is responsible for the reported results rather than the early age of exposure to football. 

Boston University School of Medicine simply suggests that there may be an important window of brain development during which repeated head impacts can lead to thinking and memory difficulties later in life. If a larger study is conducted and supports this claim, it might be time to start looking at safety changes in youth sports.