High school football isn’t linked to brain problems later on — if you played in the 1950s

This study counters some of the narrative around traumatic brain injury
By Angela Chen@chengela Jul 3, 2017,

There’s no end to headlines about the dangers of head injuries in football. But a new study suggests that high school football, at least, was not associated with cognitive problems — like having trouble remembering words or letters — later in life. The new study isn’t the last word on the dangers of football, especially for kids, but it shows that more research needs to be done.

Researchers looked at long-term survey data from men who graduated high school in Wisconsin in 1957; some had played high school football, some hadn’t. Playing the sport didn’t lead to cognitive impairment at age 65, according to a study published today in JAMA Neurology. In fact, the football players were even slightly less likely to have depression.

Football is known to cause a head injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Research has shown that CTE is linked to — among other things — memory loss, depression, and dementia. But most of these studies have been done using donated brains, which means scientists were studying the brains of people whose relatives probably already suspected that something was wrong. “There was very limited studies on the long-term effects for more limited exposure like high-school exposure,” says study co-author Dylan Small, a statistician at the University of Pennsylvania.

Small’s team analyzed data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, who tracked people who graduated in 1957 and followed up later in life. The study said whether the participant had played football, and follow-ups recorded mental health and cognitive abilities. The researchers looked at the cognition and depression scores of 3,904 people, and compared the football players to the non-football players. There was no real difference.