When my little brother turned 10 years old, he expressed a sudden interest in playing football. This was a shock to say the least, as my siblings and I grew up living and breathing soccer, basketball, even tennis—basically every sport but football. And the unchartered territory made us nervous. Even so, however, my family supported and encouraged Connor’s decision to sign up for football instead of soccer the following spring: we helped him pick out gloves and knee pads, drove him to his practices, cheered him on at every game… and swallowed our concerns about him getting severely injured.

Connor ended up playing football for just one season. He acted on his curiosity, he gave the sport a good effort, but ultimately decided it just wasn’t for him—and boy, were we glad. My family loves to watch football on TV, and we truly respect the sport; that being said, we also understand the risks that come with playing it. And we absolutely could not bear the thought of Connor getting hurt. Needless to say, Connor’s early decision to forego football was relieving; he made it out unscathed… or so it appears.

Recent research sheds light on additional risks of youth football—potential damage that can’t be seen with the eye, but damage nonetheless. This study “Age of first exposure to American football and long-term neuropsychiatric and cognitive outcomes” from Boston University finds that people who played tackle football before the age of 12 tend to experience an increase in emotional and behavioral problems later in life.

To reach these findings, researchers at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center analyzed 214 former football players: 43 of whom played solely throughout high school, and 103 of whom played solely throughout college. These subjects took cognitive tests over the phone, as well as online tests designed to measure depression, behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning (e.g., problem-solving, planning). Responses from those who played tackle football before age 12 were then compared to those who played after age 12.

The results revealed that playing youth football before the age of 12 doubled the risk of experiencing problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning, and it tripled the risk of developing depression. The total number of years spent playing football as well as whether the subjects played in high school, college or professionally proved insignificant. And while 12 years was the chosen cutoff age (due to development and maturation factors in males), the younger age of initial football participation was associated with worse clinical function even when the age cutoff was not applied.

Michael Alosco, PhD, lead author and post-doctoral fellow at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), further explained the study’s findings: “This study adds to growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences.” Fellow author Robert Stern, PhD, professor of neurology, neurosurgery, anatomy and neurobiology at BUSM explained added that, “more research is needed before any recommendations on policy or rule changes can be made.”

It is unbeknownst to us whether Connor’s one season of football-playing affected his growth and development in the following years. And we’ll likely never be sure whether it’s to blame for current or future emotional and behavioral issues. However, according to this study, those three months could prove to do even more damage than we previously realized.

Boston University School of Medicine (2017, September 19). Youth Football Linked to Emotional and Behavioral Impairments Later in Life. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 19, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/emotion-behavior-youth-football-7518/

Alosco, M. L., Kasimis, A. B., Stamm, J. M., Chua, A. S., Baugh, C. M., Daneshvar, D. H., Robbins, C. A., Mariani, M., Hayden, J., Conneely R. A., Torres, A., McClean, M. D., McKee, A. C., Cantu, R. C., Mez, J., Nowinski, C. J., Martin, B. M., Chaisson, C. E., Tripodis, Y. & Stern, R. A. (2017, September 19). Age of first exposure to American football and long-term neuropsychiatric and cognitive outcomes. Translational Psychiatry. Retrieved on December 29, 2017 from https://www.nature.com/articles/tp2017197