Playing Youth Football May Increase Risk for Memory Problems Later in Life

According to a new study by Boston University School of Medicine researchers.

When it comes to concussions and the repercussions of sustaining such an injury, most of the focus is on pro athletes, but a new study by Boston University School of Medicine researchers is shedding light on how early these injuries actually start.

The study, published in the January 28 online issue of Neurology, looked at 42 former NFL players—with an average age of 52—all of whom had experienced some sort of memory and thinking problems for at least six months prior to the study. Among the group, half had participated in tackle football before age 12 and the other half did not. Both groups had around the same number of concussions prior to entering the study.

The study found that those who had participated in tackle youth football before the age of 12 were more likely to have memory and thinking problems in adulthood. The study’s author, Robert Stern, professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, said that both groups scored below average on many of the tests conducted.

According to the study:

The study found that compared with former NFL players who started football at age 12 or later, former players who started before age 12 performed significantly worse on all test measures, even after researchers took into account the total number of years of football played and the age of the players at the time of the tests. For example, those who played before age 12 recalled fewer words from a list they had learned 15 minutes earlier, and made more repetitive errors on a test of mental flexibility, compared with those who started playing at age 12 or later. The differences between the two groups represented approximately a 20-percent difference in level of current functioning on several measures.

“Our study suggests that there may be a critical window of brain development during which repeated head impacts can lead to thinking and memory difficulties later in life,” Stern said in a statement. “If larger studies confirm this association, there may be a need to consider safety changes in youth sports.”

Stern notes that the study only focused on NFL players, and so there needs to be more studies in order to be able to equate these kind of findings to the general public. “There are tremendous benefits of participating in youth team sports,” Stern said. “The goal is to make them safer.”