Participation in high school football in Ohio fell 23 percent from 2009 to 2016, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The drop is largely attributed to concerns about concussions and other health risks.
Yet some people may overestimate risks of brain damage from football. Dr. Congeni discussed a recent study published in the journal JAMA Neurology that showed men who played high school football in the late 1950s were at no greater risk of later-life dementia or severe depression than those who didn’t play.
The study involved nearly 4,000 men from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a long-term study of men who graduated Wisconsin high schools in 1957. About 31 percent of the men played high school football.
While most of the former players were doing just fine at age 65, the study came out around the same time another study published in JAMA showed that brains of 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma.
Families donated the brains of former players because the men showed symptoms of decline, so the study did not represent a cross-section of players.
The Wisconsin study also has limitations because football has changed since the 1950s – players today are bigger, stronger and faster, Dr. Congeni said.
“But it does bear out what some of the guys who played the sport tell me. If you look at all the people who played the sport, a very small number have significant findings like CTE,” Dr. Congeni said. More research is needed to understand the true risks of CTE from playing football and other contact sports, he said.
“A lot of people say look at that CTE study, and others say you took the most symptomatic couple hundred people,” Dr. Congeni said. “There are 1.1 million people who play football every year, and a lot of those people do very well later in life.”
He said, “Right now, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say we need to do away with football or other contact or collision sports. But we definitely need to work toward making them safer.”