I love football, but as a neurologist and headache specialist I have seen how football can harm a youngster’s brain and life. Many of the millions of young players will live to ripe old ages, and we must protect their only brain.
And one way to do that is to eliminate tackle football before age 18.
Concussions are part of football, with the severity ranging from mild (feeling dazed) to severe (out cold). The brain is somewhat like Jell-O, cushioned by fluid. During medium- or high-impact collisions, when the helmet suddenly stops, the brain keeps going through the fluid, banging into the rigid skull.
A cascade of events ensues. Billions of nerve cells flood the brain with chemicals. Vital blood flow is disrupted. It takes days to months for the brain to go back to normal. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, problems with concentration and memory, depression, and insomnia. Some symptoms may linger for years. Players with multiple concussions have an increased chance of long-term problems that include chronic headache, lower GPAs, memory and emotional difficulties, dementia, and a host of other problems.
Equally disturbing are repeated knocks to the head that do not produce obvious concussion symptoms. A child who plays football from age 7-18 will typically sustain thousands of hits to the head during games and practices over the years. These can add up over time even without obvious symptoms, causing permanent brain injury.
High school players occasionally die from football. This may occur due to “second-impact syndrome,” from returning too soon after the first concussion. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can result from many head impacts, and leads to death among NFL players and boxers. It recently also has been identified in high school- and college-age players.
The health risks are especially acute for the 3.5 million children aged 5 -14 who play football. In the delicate, developing brain, concussions may produce more long-term problems than in an adult. In one study, Virginia Tech researchers wired the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds for one season. The kids averaged more than 100 significant impacts to the head for the season. Some of the collisions were enormously powerful, as severe as is seen among college players.
Kids’ brains are not simply smaller version of adult brains. For one, they do not have the protective covering of the nerve cells that is present by adulthood. Young children are like “bobbleheads,” with an oversized head on top of weak neck muscles that don’t cushion blows well. The younger kids’ brains take the entire shock. These are major head traumas to be absorbed by such immature, developing brains.