Age of first exposure to football and later-life cognitive impairment in former NFL players


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Abstract

Objective:To determine the relationship between exposure to repeated head impacts through tackle football prior to age 12, during a key period of brain development, and later-life executive function, memory, and estimated verbal IQ.Methods:Forty-two former National Football League (NFL) players ages 40–69 from the Diagnosing and Evaluating Traumatic Encephalopathy using Clinical Tests (DETECT) study were matched by age and divided into 2 groups based on their age of first exposure (AFE) to tackle football: AFE <12 and AFE ≥12. Participants completed the Wisconsin Card Sort Test (WCST), Neuropsychological Assessment Battery List Learning test (NAB-LL), and Wide Range Achievement Test, 4th edition (WRAT-4) Reading subtest as part of a larger neuropsychological testing battery.Results:Former NFL players in the AFE <12 group performed significantly worse than the AFE ≥12 group on all measures of the WCST, NAB-LL, and WRAT-4 Reading tests after controlling for total number of years of football played and age at the time of evaluation, indicating executive dysfunction, memory impairment, and lower estimated verbal IQ.Conclusions:There is an association between participation in tackle football prior to age 12 and greater later-life cognitive impairment measured using objective neuropsychological tests. These findings suggest that incurring repeated head impacts during a critical neurodevelopmental period may increase the risk of later-life cognitive impairment. If replicated with larger samples and longitudinal designs, these findings may have implications for safety recommendations for youth sports.

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