Does Your Kid Play Football? Maybe He Should Wait 'Til He's Older

Cognitive impairment was more severe in former NFL players who had started playing football before age 12

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Letting young kids get out and play is great for their health, but parents may want to wait until their kids are a bit older before letting them play football — or at least only let them play touch football.

In a new study of former NFL players with memory and thinking problems, those who had started playing tackle football before age 12 were more likely to have more severe memory and thinking problems later in life.

"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," said lead study author Robert A. Stern, PhD, of the Boston University School of Medicine, in a press release. "If larger studies confirm this association, there may be a need to consider safety changes in youth sports."

Dr. Stern said the point of his team's study wasn't to vilify football, but to keep kids safe.

"There are tremendous benefits of participating in youth team sports," Dr. Stern said. "The goal is to make them safer."

This study looked at 42 former NFL players who had been experiencing memory and thinking problems for at least six months. These patients were 52 years old on average.

Dr. Stern and team gave these patients a series of tests of their mental abilities. Those who had played tackle football before age 12 and those who hadn't both performed below average on the tests in general, but those who started younger performed worse than the other group on average — about 20 percent worse.

In an editorial about this study, Christopher M. Filley, MD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, and Charles Bernick, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, theorized that the increased risk of memory and thinking problems could come from early head injuries and impacts.

"Football has the highest injury rate among team sports," Drs. Filley and Bernick wrote. "Given that 70 percent of all football players in the United States are under the age of 14, and every child ages nine to 12 can be exposed to 240 head impacts during a single football season, a better understanding of how these impacts may affect children's brains is urgently needed."

Dr. Stern and colleagues pointed out that this study only focused on former NFL players — who have presumably played football much more than the average person — so it may not apply to the general public.

The study and editorial were published online Jan. 28 in the journal Neurology.

The National Institutes of Health, the NFL, JetBlue Airlines and the NFL Players Association funded this research. Some study authors reported financial ties to organizations like Avid Radiopharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly, Eisai and Janssen.

Review Date: 
January 30, 2015
Last Updated:
February 2, 2015