New research published in the medical journal Translational Psychiatry says kids who start playing tackle football before the age of 12 have a higher risk of mental, emotional and behavioral problems in adulthood, compared to kids who begin playing in their teens or later.
It is certainly no secret that people who have suffered repeated head injuries tend to have higher rates of certain neurological conditions than people who have not suffered such trauma. But the researchers behind this study say that it isn’t just the number of head injuries that is important–it may also be the age at first exposure that ups the risk.
The reason, say researchers, is that children’s brains change dramatically during the period of youth sports. Past studies have demonstrated that repeated head injuries, even if no concussion symptoms are present, change kids’ brains–even over the course of a single season. And those changes can have life-long consequences.
The risk is dramatic. Kids who began playing football before age 12 had double the risk for certain behavioral issues, apathy and executive function, and triple the risk for clinically elevated depression scores, compared with kids who only began playing at 12 or older.
This was a small study–with data on only 214 kids–but the scientists behind it say it appears to strengthen the evidence that participation in American football may have “long-term clinical implications” for the players.