Study: Brain Function Improves over Youth Football Season

A pilot study on youth football players indicates that a season of competition resulted in no impairment to brain function. The scientists affiliated with Sanford Research and the University of South Dakota actually found substantial postseason improvements on tests gauging neurocognitive processing, eye movement, and balance among the teenage athletes.  

The data runs counter to the growing sentiment to ban youth football due to its perceived threat to maturing brains. A November Robert Morris University poll reported that 41 percent of respondents supported prohibiting tackle football until players reach high school. While few teams have been forced off the field because of bans, the wave of parents pulling players from the field has resulted in some teams folding and others struggling to meet game day numbers requirements. Youth football lost close to seven percent of its competitors last season, so the concussion controversy eroding player population may ultimately make the idea of a formal ban moot.

The new study suggests that signing kids up for football does not mean signing them up for brain damage—or at least it didn’t for the parents who allowed their kids to play on this South Dakota Junior Football team. 

The small study may not prove an alarm bell for the alarmists, but it adds to a growing body of scholarship suggesting that the sensationalism doesn’t match the science on football. “Effects of Youth Football on Selected Clinical Measures of Neurological Function: A Pilot Study” measured more than a dozen junior high school-age athletes on the King-Devick Test, Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test, and an Advanced Mechanical Technology, Inc. (AMTI) force platform test prior to the commencement of contact sessions for their twelve-week season. During the week following the last game, the scientists retested the players who remained with the team throughout the season.

“Specifically, our aim was to determine if neurologic deficits consistent with the diagnoses of mild traumatic brain injury could be detected in non-concussed youth football players using standard clinical measures,” the article’s six authors explain. “We hypothesized that no significant preseason to postseason differences would be discovered among any of the assessments.”

Yet, the researchers found several significant preseason-to-postseason differences—in a positive direction. “The primary finding of this study is that there were no observed impairments in selected clinical measures of neurologic function in these 10 youth football players tested before and after a 12-week season,” the Journal of Child Neurology article points out. “There were, in fact, significant improvements in some measures of postural stability, oculomotor performance, and neurocognitive function.” 

The contra conventional-wisdom findings recall last year’s much larger study of midcentury high school football players by the Mayo Clinic. Hypothesizing higher rates of neurological disease rates for the football players vis-à-vis their peers in the glee club, choir, and band, the doctors instead discovered similar, pedestrian rates of brain disease for both groups. They proved their prejudice wrong. In the case of Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s, the musical students actually experienced worse outcomes than the athletic students. The five MDs wrote in April 2012’s Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “We found no increased risk of dementia, [Parkinson’s disease], or [Lou Gehrig’s disease] among the 438 football players compared with the 140 non-football-playing male classmates.”

The authors of the new Journal of Child Neurology study warn that their small sample group makes extrapolations of their conclusions onto larger football populations unwarranted. But they believe their findings warrant future, more comprehensive studies on youth football featuring larger sample pools. Close to three million children participate in American tackle football leagues, making the number of sandlot players greater than all high school, college, and professional leagues combined.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013)


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