Youth-athletes who participate in contact sports may be at increased risk of developing a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) later in life, according to a study published in the December issue of the journal Acta Neuropathologica.
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus analyzed the medical records of 1,721 deceased men, 66 of whom had participated in contact sports as youths (and beyond, in some cases). A majority (54) participated in just one contact sport—34 in American football, eight in boxing, seven in baseball, one in basketball, one in ice hockey, one in soccer, one in rodeo, and one in martial arts—while nine participated in multiple contact sports. The remaining three had notes in their medical records “suggestive of contact sports, but without details on the specific sport.”
Of the 66 who participated in contact sports as youths, 21 had “pathology consistent with CTE” to some degree, according to the study. (Two-thirds of the cases were milder than the remaining one-third.) Contrastingly, the researchers found no signs of CTE in the brains of 198 individuals with no exposure to contact sports, including 33 individuals who had history of head trauma stemming from falls, motor vehicle accidents, violent assaults, and domestic abuse.
“The 32 percent of CTE we found in our brain bank is surprisingly high for the frequency of neurodegenerative pathology within the general population,” said the study’s lead author, Kevin Bieniek, a predoctoral student in Mayo Graduate School’s Neurobiology of Disease program. “If one in three individuals who participate in a contact sport goes on to develop CTE pathology, this could present a real challenge down the road.”
Of the 21 former contact-sport athletes with signs of CTE, 11 played football, five played multiple contact sports, two were boxers, one played baseball, one played basketball, and one had “unspecified involvement with loss of consciousness.” Sixteen of the 43 patients who played football had CTE pathology (37 percent), including six who only participated through the high school level.
While the study authors stopped short of drawing a causal link between participation in contact sports as a youth and the development of CTE, they suggested those who participate “are at an increased risk for CTE pathology compared to those with no such exposure or for whom exposure to contact sports is unknown.” They also deemed their findings as “provisional” and noted the need to “screen other brain bank cohorts for CTE pathology” before drawing definitive conclusions about the relationship between youth-contact sports and CTE.
“The purpose of our study is not to discourage children and adults from participating in sports because we believe the mental and physical health benefits are great,” Bieniek said in a statement. “It is vital that people use caution when it comes to protecting the head. Through CTE awareness, greater emphasis will be placed on making contact sports safer, with better protective equipment and fewer head-to-head contacts.”
For more on the study’s findings, Bieniek spoke briefly about it here:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.