Over the holidays, our household was filled with a rookie collegiate baseball player, a former NCAA soccer player and several passionate national football league (NFL) fans. A recent spate of concussions for a Miami Dolphins quarterback sparked conversation amongst these sports fans about the impact sports have on our brains.
When my son was younger, his good friend was struck in the head by a baseball while standing on the pitcher’s mound. Countless surgeries, therapy appointments and days of worried parents later, the young man now holds a job in construction. His father advocated for changes in the proliferation of aluminum bats in youth baseball leagues while his son worked to overcome speech and physical deficits, evident now only to those closest to him.
He returned to the mound in a lesser role, unable to fully leave the game he loved. While a focus on sports continues to play a larger role in our society, researchers are learning more about how and why we need to protect our youth and professional players from long-term injuries.
Head Trauma in Youth Football
Renowned former Cincinnati Bengals player, Anthony Munoz, made it clear to his son that he would not be allowed to play football until high school. There were ample flag football leagues at his disposal until then. The former All-American wanted to ensure his son’s brain and body had developed enough to sustain the impacts which awaited in contact sports. He was right.
In an American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine study published in 2021, researchers collected head impact data from 524 tackle and flag youth football athletes over the course of a football season. Their ages ranged from 6-14 years old.
Based on a measurement of gravitation force equivalents, they discovered that youth tackle football participants had 18 times more head impacts per practice, and 19 more head impacts per game, than flag football participants. They also determined that youth tackle football athletes experienced twice as many forceful head impacts during games than they did during practices (13 head impacts versus seven, respectively).
CTE in the NFL
No mention of brain health and sports would be complete without referencing one of the most significant studies undertaken looking at professional football players and the incidences of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
According to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), “CTE is a condition that may result from head injuries, especially in athletes of contact sports like boxing or football. The condition slowly damages parts of the brain and may cause trouble with memory, other thinking skills, behavior, personality, speech or balance.”
On May 3, 2012, Junior Seau, a star linebacker with the San Diego Chargers for 20 seasons, shot himself in the chest and died.
Dr. Ann McKee, the founder of the largest bank of brain studies for people exposed to traumatic brain injury, examined over 300 brains of deceased NFL players, including at least 24 who died in their 20s and 30s. She stated it is safe to presume Junior was dealing with CTE over his final 10 years in the NFL. “He was hiding it because he was the life of the party, and he was so socially important to the team. But I think he was struggling, and he was struggling silently, and I think it just became too much for him,” Dr. McKee shared in an interview with 10 News San Diego.
Twenty percent of CTE victims never experience a concussion. But the smaller hits, known as sub-concussive hits, and the length of a player’s career, are more likely to predict CTE; and therefore, memory loss and associated symptoms.
The NFL has since been forced to recognize the dangers of the sport and compensate players for their service. They have invested heavily in protective gear, modified penalties for hits and established a more rigid concussion protocol. Still, for the third time this season, the Dolphins quarterback experienced a harsh blow. Critics continue to call for stiffer penalties for teams and better protection for players.
Cognitive Testing to Minimize CTE
Football and baseball players are not the only ones risking their brain health for the sake of their sport. Soccer players are also not immune. In Scotland, scientists found former professional footballers (soccer players to those in the United States) were around five times as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers there now use a program called SCORES (Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive head impact Exposure in Sport).
“The idea is to protect people before they get injured by conducting cognitive and behavioral tests online and in people’s homes, so they don’t have to go into a laboratory,” shared Dr. Michael Grey, Reader in Rehabilitation Neuroscience, University of East Anglia in an interview with Omnia Health. Through SCORES, brain health and sleep patterns are evaluated every three months through testing and questionnaires which take about 30 minutes to complete.
My kids stuck to track, volleyball and golf, for which I am eternally grateful. While I am a sports fan, I’ve walked on the other side of people experiencing dementia and cognitive misfunctioning, like those caregivers for former NFL players. There are too many difficult moments that occur in sports, no matter who you cheer for. In my home, I’ll cheer for long-term brain health.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and Italian Americana (forthcoming). Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.