Early Study Shows No Increased Cognitive Risk for High School Football Players

By Sherri Middleton, Managing Editor 
As more former athletes are diagnosed with a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the medical community continues to study whether there is a link between playing sports and suffering injuries and long-term cognitive impairment later in life.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Neurology recently released results of a Wisconsin Longitudinal Study that followed male football players in Wisconsin who graduated in 1957. The study finds “there was no statistically or clinically significant association between playing football in high school and increased cognitive impairment or depression later in life, on average,” according to JAMA.
From high school graduation in the late 1950s the study found that playing high school football did not appear to be a major risk factor for depression or cognitive impairment in men now aged 65.
What does that mean for high school football players today? JAMA’s report said “this study provides information on the risk of playing sports today that have a similar head trauma exposure risk as high school football played in the 1950s.
Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars (PWLS) said of the study: “I think it’s very encouraging for all of us. It’s still very early research and other research is going on.”
Pop Warner is the largest youth football, cheer and dance program in the world with approximately 325,000 children ages 5 to 16. The organization also leads the way in safety initiatives such as reducing contact in football to 25 percent of practice time, eliminating kickoffs for the youngest divisions and requiring players with a suspected head injury to return to play only after approved by a concussion specialist.
PWLS also created USA Football’s Heads Up Football training, making it mandatory for all Pop Warner coaches to make the sport safer for children.
“We had a Medical Advisory Committee meeting the other day and the topic was on asymptomatic CTE and symptomatic CTE,” Butler said. “There is still a lot to learn.”
In the Wisconsin and JAMA co-hort study, among the 3,904 men aged 64.4 years at the time of the first outcome measurement in the study, no significant harmful association of playing football and reduced cognition or increased depression was found.
“Cognitive and depression outcomes later in life were found to be similar for high school football players and their non-playing counterparts from mid-1950s in Wisconsin,” the study finds. “The risks of playing football today might be different than in the 1950s, but for current athletes, this study provides information on the risk of playing sports today that have a similar risk of head trauma as high school football played in the 1950s.”
“A lot of research is being done and a lot of research is still to be done on concussions, but this is the first relevant-sized study and it is very encouraging for all of us. We will continue trying to keep up with the research as best as we know how,” Butler said.
Click here to read more about the study.