Study: Playing tackle football at young age puts brain at risk

May 1, 2018, 12:28 PM | Updated: Aug 4, 2022, 8:35 am

Utah school sports...

High School football has been cleared to begin as soon as next month, which appears to have players from other states now transferring to Utah. (PHOTO: Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

(PHOTO: Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Youths who play tackle football are more at risk of experiencing cognitive, behavior and mood problems later in life, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine also found that those who began playing tackle football before age 12 experienced such problems on average 13 years earlier than those who started playing at 12 years old or older.

“Thirteen years is a huge number,” Michael Alosco, assistant professor at the BU School of Medicine and lead author of the study published Monday in Annals of Neurology, said in a news release. “The younger they started to play football, the earlier these symptoms began.”

Researchers interviewed family and friends of 246 deceased football players for the study.

The study also found that cognitive problems showed up 2.4 years earlier for each year younger athletes played tackle football, and behavioral and mood problems set in 2.5 years earlier on average.

“There is something unique about the age you start playing football,” Alosco said. “There is something about it that is contributing to those symptoms.”

Some athletes interviewed in the study began playing football as young as 5 years old, he said.

Brain development is critical before age 12, Alosco noted, saying “those are the ages where the gray matter of your brain is really growing, the vasculature of your brain is really growing, the connections between neurons are forming,” Alosco said. “Neurodevelopment is really at its peak.”

The Utah High School Activities Association monitors such data and incorporates the finding into its policies and procedures, said Brenan Jackson, the association’s director of football.

“There’s been some significant changes in the rule books focused on limiting helmet-to-helmet contact, and blows to the head with the shoulder, forearm and hands,” Jackson said.

Utah has a sports medicine advisory committee, and that body works with the National Federation of High Schools, “looking at best practices and policies and procedures on how to limit head to head contact, but also how to have procedures in place when a student receives a concussion.”

Utah high school football is open to youths ages 14 and older, he said.

“There is a recommendation that children under 14 shouldn’t play tackle football,” Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the Boston VA Heathcare System, said in a news release. “This paper would provide some support for that.”

Researches said they were surprised that younger exposure to football was not associated with increased pathology in the brain. The findings also were consistent in players who experienced CTE — a degenerative brain disease found in people with repeated head trauma — and those who did not.

“I think that’s a really important result of this study,” said McKee, noting that 211 players in the study had been diagnosed with CTE after they died, and most of the remaining 35 showed signs of other neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

“This finding wasn’t just for people who died of CTE,” she said. “This was for people with any disorder that affecting their cognition, behavior or mood. Early exposure made them or susceptible to any later life pathology.”

McKee says early exposure to tackle football decreases a person’s “cognitive reserve,” or their ability to resist symptoms of brain disease.

The number of kids ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football dropped from 1.26 million in 2015 to 1.22 million in 2016, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, has limited contact in practices since 2012.

The study was funded in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the Department of Defense.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.


Chief of Police for Price City Police Department, Brandon Sicilie, holding PeeDee....

Britt Johnson

Abandoned puppy finds a home at the Price Police Department

PeeDee, a puppy found on the side of a roadway during a dispatch call, has found a new home with the Price City Police Department.

1 day ago

cdc sign shown, the agency updated its covid guidelines...

Brenda Goodman, CNN

CDC drops 5-day isolation guidance for COVID-19

The CDC says it’s updating its guidance for Covid-19 to bring it in line with its advice for other kinds of respiratory infections, including influenza and RSV.

2 days ago

baby feet, utah postpartum retreat helps new moms...

Britt Johnson

Utah company aims to help postpartum moms with special retreats

The founder of Utah Postpartum Retreat said she thinks new moms are at high risk for developing postpartum mood disorders because they lack support.

2 days ago

A nurse works in the laboratory room in El Nuevo San Juan Health Center at the Bronx borough in New...

Tammy Kikuchi

Skeptics have doubts about universal health care model for Utah

One of the biggest concerns is affordability, according to a recent presentation at the Kem C. Gardener Policy Institute.

4 days ago

FILE: Vietnam War veterans gather for a photograph following a ceremony to recognize and honor Viet...

Eric Cabrera

Veterans can soon sign up for the largest-ever expansion of VA health benefits

On March 5, vets who served in a combat zone, beginning with the Vietnam war, can directly enroll in VA healthcare.

4 days ago

Liver and kidney transplant patient Luis Campos says he's grateful he had a Spanish-speaking team....

Eric Cabrera

Murray kidney clinic helping the Latino community

MURRAY, Utah — Intermountain Health has taken steps to address healthcare in Latino communities by opening Utah’s first fully Spanish-speaking Kidney Transplant Clinic. The Intermountain Clinica Hispana de Riñon (Hispanic Kidney Clinic), in Murray, aims to provide a space for members of the Latino community navigating the complex kidney transplant process. The clinic has bilingual professionals, […]

5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Study: Playing tackle football at young age puts brain at risk