Younger athletes at risk of chronic brain injuries, study finds

Young contact-sport athletes are at risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease of the brain often caused by repeated hits to the head, according to a new study.

Researchers at Boston University's CTE Center examined 152 brains of athletes who died under the age of 30. More than 41% had developed signs of CTE before they died. The disease can't be confirmed until the brain is examined after death.

The study provides the latest evidence that CTE can start developing earlier in life, during a person's teenage years, according to CTE Center Director Ann McKee.

"Almost 70% of these individuals were amateur athletes," McKee said. "They only played the high school or college level and still had developed the changes of CTE."

The majority of studied individuals participated in popular contact sports  — football, ice hockey, soccer, rugby and wrestling, according to McKee. Neuropathologic examination established mild, early stages of the disease in most deceased athletes, but three of them had reached the third of its four stages before turning 30.

The length of athletes' sporting careers also increased risks of developing CTE. The research found that those diagnosed with CTE played four years more than those without the diagnosis.

Eleven of 152 samples in the research belonged to women, including the brain of the first American female athlete diagnosed with CTE — a 28-year-old collegiate soccer player whose identity remains undisclosed.

"Most of our brain donors are men," McKee said. "We know that women are at risk of concussions and other injuries from [contact] sports. And we know that women can get CTE because of previous research on victims of interpersonal violence."

Earlier this year, another BU CTE Center study revealed the dangers of tackle sports and head injuries for young players. The authors said introducing flag football to schools and reducing years in the sport could benefit young athletes.

Some of these changes are happening:  A New York high school football league has removed kickoffs from games and the United Kingdom has ditched headers for younger soccer players.

McKee said this research left her questioning the ways young people interact with contact sports.

"As a parent myself, to see the brain of such a young person damaged by something they they were exposed to and knowing that this is preventable," she said. "that's what made this particular study a personal endeavor for me."

McKee said parents should remain alert about the potential dangers of contact sports and consider delaying their children's athletic careers until they are older.

Editor's Note: Boston University owns WBUR's broadcast license. WBUR is editorially independent.


Irina Matchavariani WBUR Newsroom Fellow
Irina Matchavariani is a newsroom fellow at WBUR.



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