NOT SCIENCE: ‘Former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 at increased risk of memory and thinking problems later’

Nope. Not even close.

Only 42 subjects — all of whom claim vague “memory and thinking problems,” whatever that means. The comparison groups may have had a similar number of concussions, but not all concussions are created equal. Finally, such a study should also look at and compare players with no claimed “memory and thinking” problems. While this result is intuitively plausible and most certainly politically correct, it is not science.

The media release is below.

Study: Former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 at increased risk of memory and thinking problems later
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF NEUROLOGY

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MINNEAPOLIS – Former National Football League (NFL) players who participated in tackle football before the age of 12 were more likely to have memory and thinking problems in adulthood, according to a new study published in the January 28, 2015, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

For the study, researchers tested 42 former NFL players with an average age of 52. All of the participants had experienced memory and thinking problems for at least six months. Half of the players participated in tackle football before the age of 12 and half did not. The number of concussions sustained was similar between the two groups.

The study found that compared with former NFL players who started football at age 12 or later, former players who started before age 12 performed significantly worse on all test measures, even after researchers took into account the total number of years of football played and the age of the players at the time of the tests. For example, those who played before age 12 recalled fewer words from a list they had learned 15 minutes earlier, and made more repetitive errors on a test of mental flexibility, compared with those who started playing at age 12 or later. The differences between the two groups represented approximately a 20-percent difference in level of current functioning on several measures. Study author Robert Stern, PhD, with Boston University School of Medicine said that both groups scored below average on many of the tests.

“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 Stern. “If larger studies confirm this association, there may be a need to consider safety changes in youth sports.”

“Football has the highest injury rate among team sports,” said Christopher M. Filley, MD, with the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, CO, in an accompanying editorial. Filley is a Fellow with the American Academy of Neurology. “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.”

Stern said that because the study focused on NFL players, the results may not be applicable to the general public and more research is needed before policy changes are implemented. “There are tremendous benefits of participating in youth team sports. The goal is to make them safer.”

“While the researchers did take into account the total years of football played, they were unable to assess the total number of head impacts. So it’s possible that the number of impacts is responsible for the reported results rather than the early age of exposure to football,” said Filley.

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The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health. JetBlue Airlines, the National Football League and the NFL Players Association provided participant travel.

5 thoughts on “NOT SCIENCE: ‘Former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 at increased risk of memory and thinking problems later’”

  1. I played rugby from the age of about ten to when I was almost forty years of age (by then I was a social rugby club reserve). Every game involved hard tackles and being brought down with a thump. When you made a tackle you often got a boot-heel in the face because the school coach emphasised your having to go in low and fast. I lived in southern Africa (not South Africa) where rugby had almost a State religion status.
    I’m now approching seventy years of age, almost all of my erstwhile team-mates are still warm, vertical and breathing and not one of us has ever felt the worse for having played a brutally physical sport which involved many a whack aside the head.

  2. Oh, you ought to remember that rugby players wear absolutely no protective gear/hemets etc. whatsoever.

  3. One of my daughters only essay into sports was the Rugby club at a Division II college. No head protection. She came out of it with her nose, teeth and ears intact. The only injury was a minor knee twist. Even when the little girls do it, it can get pretty rough. Having no head protection seems to alter the way you tackle. American football players tend to go head first.

  4. A new trend is developing in American Football where the players practice WITHOUT helmets, in an attempt to reduce their tendency to use their heads as weapons. It seems to help, as they continue to protect their heads in games even with helmets on. Let’s face it, the feeling of invulnerability is what causes them to use their heads to hit with in the first place.

  5. Too bad they don’t have comparative data on football players smartness without the head injuries.

    But that would violate the narrative that we need to get rid of the NFL.

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