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New study: Tackle football before 12 risks earlier brain disorder

Could playing youth football be putting your child at risk for a degenerative brain disorder? It's a risk, according to a new study at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University. Kids who play tackle football before age 12 are at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and they may see symptoms years earlier than those who do not.

Boston University and Boston's VA have been studying 246 brains donated by deceased football players. These included 138 professional football players, 2 semi-pro players, 64 who played in college and 7 who only played through high school.

Some 211 of the athletes' brains showed signs of CTE, a degenerative brain disease thought to be caused by repetitive head trauma, including concussions, over time. CTE is known to cause mood swings and behavioral problems, and may develop into dementia long before old age.

According to the researchers, athletes who began playing tackle football before age 12 developed CTE an average of 13 years earlier than those who began playing later. That said, the evidence is still out on whether youth tackle football increases the odds of players developing CTE or, if they do, whether their disease will be more serious than it would be if they had started playing later.

Still, it appears that the earlier a child plays tackle football, the earlier they develop CTE. And, while CTE is not inevitable for those who play tackle football, the rate of CTE among the football players studied is very high.

Moreover, the effect was not limited to CTE alone. Of those 211 athletes' brains showing signs of CTE, a number also showed signs of other neuropathy, including Alzheimer's disease.

"Youth exposure to repetitive head impacts in tackle football may reduce one's resiliency to brain diseases later in life, including but not limited to CTE," said the chief of neuropathology at Boston's VA system.

The research adds to a growing body of evidence that playing tackle football poses a high risk of cognitive, behavioral and emotional problems later in life. As a result of the evidence, the NFL has made changes to its rules on head-to-head hits. Experts warn that may not be enough to prevent CTE, however.

Parents with small children who yearn to play football should seriously consider alternatives that don't involve tackling or brain-rattling hits.

The study was published online in the journal Annals of Neurology.

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