Student Well-Being

High School Football Can Lead to Long-Term Brain Damage, Study Says

By Bryan Toporek — December 06, 2012 2 min read

A sweeping new study has found evidence that long-term brain damage can occur after playing football for just a few years... in high school.

Released Monday by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the study found such injuries to six young men who played football in high school, but stopped before college, and did not play professionally.

Researchers from the BU Center examined the brains of 85 deceased former athletes and military veterans to check for traces of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that can be triggered by repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries. Another 18 subjects without a history of mild traumatic brain injury were used as the control group.

Of the 85 brains examined outside of the control group (84 male, 1 female, ranging from 14-98 years old), 68 were found to have CTE, including 34 former professional football players and one semi-professional football player. Fifteen of the 68 brains with CTE were in people who had played only high school football (six) or college football (nine).

Based on their findings, the researchers developed a first-ever pathological classification for CTE that divides the disease into four stages based on severity, ranging from Stage I (reporting headaches, loss of attention) to Stage IV (severe memory loss, dementia).

Let’s dive into a little bit more detail about the high school football players, specifically. Of the 103 brains examined (the 85 in the study and the 18 in the control group), 13 had high school football listed as at least one of their exposures to mild traumatic brain injuries. The subjects in the study aren’t referred to by name, only by case number, so that’s how they’re presented here, too.

Results for Former High School Football Players

Of the 13 former high school football players in the study, seven had no signs of CTE. Cases 20, 21, 22, and 24 were all former high school football players who died before the age of 20, none of whom had traces of CTE in their brains. (Two died of overdoses, one from cardiac arrest, and one from suicide.) Cases 26 and 28 were former high school football players who died between the ages of 20-29, and neither had CTE when they died. (Case 26 died from a gunshot wound; case 28 committed suicide.)

Case 32, another former high school player, committed suicide between the ages of 40-49 with no traces of CTE in his brain. However, he was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, a neurodegenerative disease that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Now, for the six former high school players who

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.