A new study has found that kids who play tackle football at or before the age of 12 could be more susceptible to long-term cognitive or brain-related health issues as a result of repetitive impacts to the head – even those that don’t rise to the level of concussions.
The study marks the latest research that is raising concerns among parents of boys and girls who play contact sports before high school, especially those who take part in tackle football.
Because their brains are not full developed, high-school and middle-school student athletes, and especially younger kids in pee-wee leagues, are more susceptible to concussions – or long-term effects of repetitive hits to the head that may not show signs of a concussion, according to Richard Hamilton , Ph.D., clinical director, Brain Injury and Concussion Rehabilitation Programs  at Baptist Hospital .
“This study has created quite an alarming reaction among people in the field because of the potential implications,” says Dr. Hamilton. “You have to take into consideration what is called the ‘selection bias,’ which refers to the preexisting conditions of the brains that these neuropathologists look at. They are often sent to them because these people have had cognitive issues and other brain-related issues prior to their death. That said, it’s still alarming.”
Published in the Annals of Neurology , the research found those who played tackle football before age 12 had, on average, cognitive issues arise 13.39 years earlier, and behavioral and mood problems 13.28 years earlier than those who began to play at 12 or older. Additionally, the onset of cognitive problems occurred 2.4 years earlier and behavioral and mood problems 2.5 years earlier for every one year younger participants began to play tackle football.
Researchers from the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine led this latest study. The same researchers previously published findings on the link between playing tackle football at a young age and its link to the debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Most scientists believe that CTE is a result of repeated, or sub-concussive, hits to the head.
In 2016, the CTE findings by neuropathologists in the brains of deceased former National Football League (NFL) players resulted in a $1 billion concussion settlement between the league and thousands of former players.
Each time the head takes a pounding, it shakes the brain inside the skull. A concussion can be caused by a single blow to the head or body, a fall or another injury that jars or shakes the brain inside the skull. The injury usually alters how the brain functions — for a relatively short period of time in most cases. You don’t have to pass out, or lose consciousness, to have a concussion. Some people will suffer the more expected symptoms, such as passing out after impact or short-term memory loss.
Dr. Hamilton emphasizes that the NFL has acknowledged “a relationship between multiple hits to the head and CTE, and everybody agrees with that.” He served as an expert witness in the settlement process that took place between former NFL players and the league.
“Kids younger than 14 should not be playing tackle football because their brains are still maturing,” he says. “We know that younger kids can get concussions easier and take longer to recover. And who truly knows the long-term effect of a concussion on an underdeveloped brain?”
Tackle football leagues prior to the high school level usually provide poor equipment, including poor-fitting helmets, says Dr. Hamilton. And these leagues are usually run by under-trained coaches, sometimes parents filling in as coaches, who are not qualified to detect a potential concussion in the young players, he adds.
Since 2015, all high school athletes in Florida must complete courses on concussions provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations before being eligible to play. Dr. Hamilton says that even at the high school level, kick-off and punt returns should be eliminated because these plays often result in the hardest tackling and more severe concussions.
“Based on what I know about concussions, I would not allow my kids to play tackle football before the age of 14,” says Dr. Hamilton. “I would urge parents with kids under 14 to have them play flag or touch football and avoid tackle football. It’s too dangers and we’re not sure about those long-term effects.”