It’s fall and, after school, every field in my town is full of kids — peewee to high school varsity — suited up in helmets and pads to play football. When my now-15-year-old son Charlie was younger, I used to feel a pang as we passed those practices. Charlie, a runner with a powerful stride, is autistic and any kind of organized teams sports are out of the question. Would he have wanted to play football, had things been different?
New studies about the effects of concussions on children and their developing brains as well as reports about former NFL players who have committed suicide — Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and the San Diego Chargers’ Junior Seau both shot themselves in the chest — are giving parents pause about allowing a child to play football.
Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner has said that it’s a “scary thing” that his two school-age sons are playing the sport, says USA Today. In the New York Times, one mother, Crystal McCrary says that she and her ex-husband, former NBA player Greg Anthony, will not allow their 12-year-old son to play the sport, however much coaches enthuse about his abilities. Five facts that parents like McCrary are weighing:
1) When a child takes a hit to the head in football, the impact can be as bad as that in a car accident.
Stefan Duma, the head of the biomedical engineering department at Virginia Tech, led a research study in which sensors were placed inside the helmets of seven boys aged 6 to 8 years old during their 2011 football season. Most of the impacts were “too inconsequential to record,” but he also found that
Results showed that about 95 percent of the impacts were between 15 and 20 g’s — what Duma likened to an “aggressive pillow fight.” The other 5 percent spiked to 50 to 100 g’s — what Duma characterized as a “car accident.”
Duma noted that collegiate and professional football players had a low risk for concussions at 100 g’s. But research has shown that the damage from concussions can be cumulative, and that the brains of younger athletes may be particularly susceptible.
This fall, Duma will be part of a joint research project with Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to evaluate about 300 football players ages 6 to 13, says the New York Times. Duma underscores the need for more studies with many participants, noting that it is not easy to get statistics about concussions due to underreporting about how often, and how serious, these are.
2) Kids who take a blow to the head can have problems a year later.
A March 2012 study in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine found that a small group of students who suffer concussions had problems with memory and attention in the two weeks and even twelve months afterwards. Specifically, children experienced headaches, fatigue, forgetfulness and inattentiveness.
Time Magazine also points out that 20 percent of children who were knocked out and lost consciousness experience forgetfulness and fatigue.
3) The long-term damage caused by concussions remains unknown.
A recently published Neurology of 3,439 retired pro football players found that they are three to four times more likely to die from brain diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
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