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Study Suggests Tackle Football Before Age 12 Can Lead to Serious Consequences

Photograph by Twenty20

A new study in the journal Translational Psychiatry has linked the start of tackle football before the age of 12 to serious behavioral and mental problems later in life.

The study, conducted by researchers from Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center, looked at 214 former football players in the United States. All of the football players were older, with the average age being 51; 43 of the subjects had played football only through high school, 103 also had played through college and 68 had played at the professional NFL level.

Researchers tested all the players in the study through cognitive tests and online tools that measured their rates of depression, behavioral regulation, apathy and mental ability of executive functioning, which included skills like problem solving, planning and organization. The point of the study was to evaluate the adult football players' results based on who had started playing tackle football before the age of 12 and who had started playing after the age of 12.

And the results? They weren't pretty.

The players who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 had a two-fold increase in the risk of having problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning. Additionally, the risk of clinical depression increased by three times. The numbers were consistent no matter how many total years the football athlete had played or how many concussions were sustained, with the study ultimately suggesting that the main factor was who had started playing tackle football before age 12.

So, what exactly is going on here?

According to one of the study's authors, who spoke with the New York Times, the researchers chose the age of 12 because during the ages of 10-12, the male brain sees tremendous growth and development. So, starting to play tackle football before or during that time exposes the brain to sustained, repetitive trauma that can cause a lot of damage and interfere with proper development. Previous studies have also associated early introduction of tackle football before the age of 12 with negative clinical outcomes, such as poor memory, mental flexibility and literal changes in the brain's structure.

Does this mean that tackle football will officially be banned before the age of 12? Not quite yet. The study's authors concluded that while the study "adds to growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to a greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences," more research still needs to be done before any official policy is set in place to ban tackle football before the age of 12.

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