Youth Football Brain Study: Experts Recommend Eliminating Tackling In Youth Game After Study Shows Brain Risks

Athletes who take up football before age 12 are at serious risk for behavioral and cognitive difficulties later in life, including a significantly increased risk of depression, a new study shows.

The study has led experts to call for all tackling to be eliminated in youth football under the age of 12, which comes amid a boom in the growth of non-contact forms of youth football.

Researchers at Boston University conducted a long-term study of 214 former football players, including 68 who played in the NFL and another 103 who played in college, the New York Times noted. The study ultimately found that those who played youth football before the age of 12 were twice as likely to have “problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function” and were three times more likely to have “clinically elevated depression scores.”

“The brain is going through this incredible time of growth between the years of 10 and 12, and if you subject that developing brain to repetitive head impacts, it may cause problems later in life,” said Robert Stern, one of the study’s authors.

The study dovetails with other recent research that has revealed elevated risks of long-term brain development issues for those who play football and other sports where head injuries are common. A July study published in the medical journal, JAMA, reported that the progressive brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), was found in the brains of 99 percent of former NFL players.

Many NFL players have also become more vocal about the risks of concussions and the havoc they can cause both during and after playing careers. When Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took himself out of a game in 2015 after experiencing concussion symptoms, Roethlisberger said he was proud of his decision.

“I’m proud of it,” Roethlisberger said (via CBS Boston). “I have been just like Drew [Brees] where I haven’t reported things before either. Probably everybody who has ever played the game of football hasn’t reported an injury. For me it wasn’t about an injury — I’ve played through many injuries — but when you talk about your head, that is a different ball game. You can replace a lot of body parts; you can’t replace a brain.”

As the studies reveal the extent of brain risks for youth football players, participation in the sport has taken a sharp drop. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of youth football players fell by 17.9 percent, the Star-Telegram noted. While there was a 1.9 increase the following year, the long-term trend is down for youth football.

As fewer athletes sign up for youth football, a less dangerous version of the sport has seen a more dramatic increase. A study conducted by USA Football found that in 2015, participation in flag football increased 8.7 percent among children ages six to 14, making it the fastest-growing sport in the United States.

That trend could continue. In light of the new study outlining the risks of brain injury, many experts have reiterated their call to eliminate all tackling in football before the age of 12.

[Featured Image by ActionPics/iStock]