Is high school football in San Marcos really as dangerous as scientists and physicians have been suggesting? Does playing high school football increase young athletes’ risk for sports-related concussions and more serious traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), in addition to placing them in danger of developing the degenerative brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)? Most physicians would say, in general, yes. However, according to a new study published in JAMA Neurology, not all high school football players appear to have sustained long-term damage from playing the sport in their youth. High school football players in the 1950s did not, on the whole, show signs of cognitive impairment.
This study appears to call into question some of the recent research on TBIs and high school football. What are the key takeaways from this study, and should this research change the way we manage the risk of brain injuries in contact sports?
Study Explores Link Between Youth Sports-Related Concussions and Long-Term Cognitive Health
One of the primary reasons for the study, according to its authors, is that we simply do not have enough information about how sports-related concussions sustained by youth athletes affects their long-term cognitive and mental health. The authors emphasize that most of the reports we have seen on CTE in retired professional football players come from posthumous examinations of those players’ donated brains, and such investigations may be “affected by referral bias.” It is particularly difficult, then, to make assessments concerning the long-term brain health of high school football players, especially when they do not continue playing the sport in college or at the professional level.
The researchers in this study emphasize that “there has been limited work examining the association of playing high school football with cognitive impairment and depression later in life.” Some studies have taken place, but there have been no randomized clinical trials, and research in general has had some conflicting outcomes.
In order to provide a more complete assessment of the TBI risks of high school football, the researchers proposed a “matched observational study.” In the study, they took a random sampling of thousands of Wisconsin high school graduates from 1957, and then looked specifically at graduates who had played football. They controlled for issues such as “adolescent IQ, family background, and educational level.” The ultimate goal was to “estimate the association of playing high school football with cognitive impairment and depression at 65 years of age.”
No Statistically Significant Link Between High School Football and Cognitive Impairment
The results of the study are surprising given recent work on football and head trauma. In assessing the cases of 3,904 individual men who played high school football, the researchers determined that “there was no statistically significant harmful association of playing football with a reduced composite cognition score.” The study also reported that, after adjusting for control factors, “playing football did not have a significant adverse association with . . . the likelihood of heavy alcohol use at 65 years of age” or with other outcomes such as depression, anger, anxiety, or hostility.
What can we take away from the study? Generally speaking, more research needs to be done on brain injury risks and high school football. In the meantime, if your child suffered a concussion or a serious TBI while playing high school sports, a San Marcos brain injury lawyer can discuss your options with you. Contact the Walton Law Firm today to learn more about filing a brain injury claim.
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(Photo by João Victor Xavier)