BOULDER, Colo. — A few decades ago, if a high school football player took a nasty tackle or head on collision during a game or practice session, it wasn’t all that unusual for the player to be back out on the field “playing through” their injury shortly afterwards. Today, we know much more about the possible consequences of head trauma and concussions, sparking spirited debates in recent years about whether it is a good idea in general to allow youths, whose brains are still very much developing, to play potentially dangerous contact sports like football, rugby, and even hockey.
Now, a new study conducted at the University of Colorado at Boulder has come to a surprising conclusion regarding youths and contact sports: Adolescents who play sports like football are no more likely to develop cognitive impairment, depression or suicidal thoughts later on in life than their peers who don’t engage in such activities. Researchers followed almost 11,000 adolescents for a period of 14 years.
Furthermore, the study also found that teens who play any sport in general are less at risk of dealing with a mental health issue in their late 20s to early 30s.
“There is a common perception that there’s a direct causal link between youth contact sports, head injuries and downstream adverse effects like impaired cognitive ability and mental health. “We did not find that,” comments lead study author Dr. Adam Bohr in a release.
These findings are especially noteworthy because they seemingly contradict a number of recent, highly publicized studies that had concluded a number of former NFL players were dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), cognitive decline and mental health issues due to concussions and head trauma sustained over the course of their playing careers. These reports have had a trickle down effect on high school sports programs, which have seen a decline in football participation nationally.
This study’s authors wanted to look specifically at adolescents participating in contact sports, and the long-term observable trends regarding cognition and mental health.
“When people talk about NFL players, they are talking about an elite subset of the population,” says senior author and associate professor Matthew McQueen. “We wanted to look specifically at kids and determine if there are true harms that are showing up early in adulthood.”
Data collected on 10,951 adolescents was analyzed for the study; accounting for a representative sample of seventh through 12th graders. Each youth was tracked beginning in 1994, and periodically interviewed and tested for the following 14 years.
The participants were separated into three groups; those who, in 1994, wanted to play contact sports, those who planned to play a non-contact sport, and those who didn’t plan on playing any sports. Among the males included in the analysis, 26% reported a desire to play football.
First, researchers accounted for a number of factors including education, race, and socioeconomic status. Then, each adolescents’ test results were analyzed. These tests included tasks designed to measure memory and cognition, as well as questionnaires regarding any diagnosed mental health disorders or suicide attempts.
“We were unable to find any meaningful difference between individuals who participated in contact sports and those who participated in non-contact sports. Across the board, across all measures, they looked more or less the same later in life,” Dr. Bohr says.
In fact, football players were actually found to have lower rates of depression in early adulthood than other participants. Youths who had no intention of playing any sports between the ages of 8-14 were found to be 22% more likely to report feelings of depression during their early adulthood.
“Right now, football is in many ways being compared to cigarette smoking – no benefit and all harm,” McQueen explains. “It is absolutely true that there is a subset of NFL players who have experienced horrible neurological decline, and we need to continue to research to improve our understanding of that important issue. The idea that playing football in high school will lead to similar outcomes later in life as those who played in the NFL is not consistent with the evidence. In fact, we and others have found there is some benefit to playing youth sports.”
It’s worth noting that researchers were only able to account for “intent” to play football. Additionally, they weren’t able to determine how long each participant played football, what position they played, and if they had sustained any recorded head injuries. With these facts in mind, the study’s authors stress that additional research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn from their research.
“Few current public health issues are as contentious and controversial as the safety and consequences of participation in football,” the study reads. “Research on the risks of participation weighed with the risks of not participating in sports will enable parents and young athletes to make educated, informed decisions based on solid evidence.”
The University of Colorado at Boulder is already planning a study on the long-term mental and physical well-being of their own student-athlete alumni.
The study is published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.