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Playing football before age 12 linked to long term health risks

A study by the Boston University School of Medicine has revealed that children who play American football may suffer from negative health consequences later in life. The analysis of over 200 professional and amateur football players in America indicates that being exposed to the sport before age 12 can cause long-term mood and behavior issues.

The researchers discovered that football players who started playing before age 12 had more than double the risk of frontal lobe impairment compared to players who took up the sport at age 12 or later. The frontal lobe plays a major role in executive function, which includes analyzing, organizing, regulating behavior, and apathy. The study also showed that players who had started the sport before age 12 developed more than three times the risk for depression.

“Overall, our study provides further evidence that playing American football before age 12, and being hit in the head repeatedly through tackle football during a critical time of brain development, is associated with later-life problems with mood and behavior,” said co-author Dr. Robert Stern.

For their evaluation, the researchers accessed an online questionnaire from 214 former American football players who averaged 51 years of age at the time of the study. The individuals had reported information on executive function, behavioral regulation, apathy, and depression. Cognitive testing was performed through telephone interviews, and the players had also taken part in an investigation of the long-term and short-term consequences of exposure to repeated head impacts.

The current study, published in Translational Psychiatry, is unprecedented in evaluating relationship between the age of first exposure to football and clinical dysfunction in a sample that includes both professionals and amateurs who did not play past college.

“It is important to note that participation in youth sports can have many benefits, including the development of leadership skills, social skills, and work ethic, not to mention the tremendous health benefits,” said Dr. Stern. “The goal is to make sure that children can take advantage of all of the benefits of sports participation without the risk of long-term brain injury or disease. More research on this topic is needed before any recommendations on policy or rule changes can be made.”

Dr. Stern added that repeated head impacts can undoubtedly lead to long-term consequences, “and we should be doing what we can at all levels in all sports to minimize these repeated hits.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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