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NFL players who began playing before 12 more likely to develop cognitive impairment

Published 28 January 2015

Professional American Football players who began playing the sport before the age of 12 may be more likely to develop cognitive impairment than those who took it up after that age.

Professional American Football players who began playing the sport before the age of 12 may be more likely to develop cognitive impairment than those who took it up after that age according to a study published in Neurology today (28 Jan 2015).

In a study published today, researchers at Boston University performed cognitive tests on 42 male former National Football League (NFL) players with an average age of 52, all of whom had reported problems with memory and thinking for at least six months. Half of the players started playing tackle football before the age of 12 and the other half started later than that. The number of concussions sustained was similar between the two groups. 

The study found that compared with former NFL players who started the sport at age 12 or later, those who started before age 12 performed significantly worse on all test measures, even after researchers took into account the total number of years of football played and the age of the players at the time of the tests. For example, those who played before age 12 recalled fewer words from a list they had learned 15 minutes earlier, and made more repetitive errors on a test of mental flexibility, compared with those who started playing at age 12 or later.

Alzheimer's Society comment

Dr Clare Walton, Research Manager at Alzheimer's Society said:

'With the Super Bowl fast approaching, this study is a timely reminder of the accumulating evidence linking sports involving frequent head injuries with a possible increase in the risk of developing dementia. However, as this study only looked at cognitive performance in middle age and not at changes in memory, we cannot make any conclusions about whether playing American football in childhood has any effect on dementia risk later on. 

There is increasing evidence that playing professional American football may have lasting effects on the brain but these findings should not be generalised to other sports such as soccer or rugby where the research is yet to be done. Parents reading this shouldn't take this study to mean that children under 12 who play those sports are more at risk of dementia.'

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Research reference: Stern et al, (2015). Age of first exposure to football and later-life cognitive impairment in former NFL players. Published in Neurology on Wednesday 28 January 2015.

Notes to editors:

  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that's one every three minutes
  • Alzheimer's Society research shows that 850,000 people in the UK have a form of dementia. In less than ten years a million people will be living with dementia. This will soar to two million people by 2051
  • Dementia costs the UK economy over £26 Billion per year. This is the equivalent of more than £30,000 per person with dementia. 
  • Alzheimer's Society champions the rights of people living with dementia and the millions of people who care for them 
  • Alzheimer's Society works in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Alzheimer's Society supports people to live well with dementia today and funds research to find a cure for tomorrow. We rely on voluntary donations to continue our vital work. You can donate now by calling 0845 306 0898 or visiting alzheimers.org.uk
  • Alzheimer's Society provides a National Dementia Helpline, the number is 0300 222 11 22 or visit alzheimers.org.uk