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CARE Consortium: Estimated age at first exposure to football and neurocognitive performance

Student-athletes who played football before age 12 do not demonstrate neurocognitive deficits in college, study finds

Previous studies have found that repetitive head impacts to athletes during adolescence can have potentially detrimental effects much later in life. But what short-term effects might that early-life exposure have? To find out, Jaclyn Caccese, a postdoctoral research fellow at Delaware, and a team of researchers delved into data from the ongoing NCAA-Department of Defense Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium study, examining whether the age at which athletes first played football had any effect on neurocognitive performance or concussion symptom severity when they reached college. Their results were published in Sports Medicine, a medical journal.

What did the study find?

The researchers examined a cohort of 4,376 college athletes, divided between football players and those who participated in noncontact sports. The age at which the athletes first had been exposed to contact in football did not have an effect on their neurocognitive performance, as measured by a common concussion assessment tool. Those who had played football before age 12 did not demonstrate any neurocognitive deficits in college.

What are the implications?

Caccese notes that a series of studies in former NFL players suggested that playing organized football before the age of 12 was associated with poorer later-life cognitive function, greater self-reported symptoms of depression and apathy, and abnormal changes in neuroimaging. But this study demonstrated that, while in college, there are no differences in cognitive function between football players who started playing football before the age of 12 and those who started playing football later in life.

“These results suggest that while negative consequences may occur later in life for a variety of reasons, at least when they are in college, a critical time period in a young person’s life, there do not appear to be cognitive problems from starting football at a younger age,” she said.   

What’s next?

Determining why these results differ from previous work is vital. To do so, members of the same cohort would need to be studied across their lifespans to see if any problems manifest over time among the athletes in this study who started playing before age 12. It’s precisely the type of question the NCAA-Department of Defense CARE Consortium was designed to address.  

“It would be great to follow these student-athletes for the next 40 to 50 years to track their overall health,” Caccese said. “While football gets most of the attention, we can also build upon these findings by including other collision and contact sports, such as ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer and wrestling.”