Research in the US has found that former National Football League (NFL) players who started playing American tackle football before the age of 12 may have worse memory in later life, compared to those who began playing the sport later in their youth. The study is published on Wednesday 28 January in the journal Neurology online.
Boston University researchers studied 42 former NFL players with an average age of 52. Half of the group began playing before the age of 12, while the others had been older when they first took up the sport. Research has shown that players of all ages experience blows to the head as part of the sport, and the study set out to investigate how repeated head impacts in young players may affect their brain health in later life.
Each participant took part in a series of memory tests to assess their memory and thinking skills. When the results were compared, they found that those who had begun playing the sport at an earlier age had worse scores on each of the tests than those who started playing later. The researchers argue that there is a need for further research to fully understand the long-term effects of repeated head injuries.
Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“This very small study adds to evidence suggesting that head injury can have a negative effect on brain health, but we can’t be sure whether other factors may have been responsible for these results. Participants’ memory and thinking skills were only measured once, meaning we can’t know how their performance in these tests might have changed over time. The people in this study played American football at career level for many years, and it’s not clear that these results would hold true for people who only played the sport occasionally.
“This study did not look at dementia, but understanding the different factors that affect memory and thinking in later life is important for learning how to protect our brains as we age. The risk factors for dementia are complex and while it’s a good idea to try to avoid head injury, physical activity is important for reducing the risk of dementia as well as countless other health conditions. Dementia affects 830,000 people in the UK and with that number on the increase, research to better understand how to prevent the condition is crucial.”