Football and your child’s brain
© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD
Since every second of my life, and then some, seems preoccupied with the transition to the New and Improved ICD-10 code set — I can’t imagine how I lived so long without being able to code for someone bitten by a pig in a prison swimming pool – I’ve had no time to write anything new. So today you get a refurbished, classic post. And by classic, I mean old. I put a new photo somewhere in the text to freshen it up, so I promise it’s worth a read. I’m hoping to get back to writing new stuff soon. Enjoy!
Eat your vegetables. Be good to your momma. Change your underwear.
Good, solid advice. Maybe we need to add: “Don’t damage your brain. You’re going to need it someday.”
More and more evidence is accumulating that football, or at least football as it’s currently being played in high schools and colleges, is causing irreversible brain damage. The latest study was published in JAMA this week. Researchers looked at 25 collegiate football players (who had played in high school), and compared both brain imaging and cognitive performance with students who hadn’t played college. They correlated their findings with the number of years of football experience, and the number of recalled concussions.
Bottom line: more concussions correlates with a loss of brain volume in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with memory recall and the regulation of emotions. Not only were concussions correlated, but the number of years playing football also correlated with this change in MRI scans and with deficits in cognitive testing, including tests of reaction time and impulsivity.By the way—if you think helmets prevent concussions, think again.
The study itself wasn’t large, and relied only on the students’ recall of concussions. And it does not establish causality—maybe people with smaller hippocampi are more attracted to football, or tend to have more concussions (though no other research suggests this). Still, studies like this add to the considerable evidence that the kind of high-impact head trauma that occurs during football is causing real damage to real brains.
What can we do about it? There are steps individual families can make to protect their own children, especially by recognizing and treating concussions when they occur. Beyond that, we’ll have to see if coaches, athletes, and families are willing to risk brain damage to continue traditional football programs. Are the benefits worth the risk? It’s time to talk about it.