Ah, youth football. Where else can your kids learn about teamwork, stay in shape, and experience repeated impacts to their developing brains? Millions of kids in the U.S. suffer from sports-related concussions every year, and a new study highlights how youth football leagues are contributing to the problem. In a sample of 100 children between the ages of 10 and 13, researchers recorded more than 40,000 head impacts during footballs games and practices.
The study, published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, also found that 13-year-olds were more likely to experience high magnitude hits than 10-year-olds but that, when 10-year-olds were hit, it was most often during practice. The findings suggest that youth athletes should not be evaluated as a single group when assessing risk of head impact and brain injury.
“We found that players of higher age and weight classes had higher average magnitude head impacts…[and] a greater percentage of higher magnitude impacts in competition,” coauthor Joel Stitzel of Wake Forest University School of Medicine told Fatherly. Stitzel adds that this could help coaches and parents “adjust practice and competition to lower head impact exposure.”
Roughly three million youth athletes take to fields in the U.S. each year, and an estimated 1.1 million of them end up with sports-related concussions. More insidious, however, are what researchers call “subconcussive events” — repeated hits to the head that don’t result in concussions, but add up to cause long-term brain damage, memory loss, and depression.
For kids, these concerns are only amplified. “Because a young athlete’s brain is still developing, the effects of a concussion, or even many smaller hits over a season, can be far more detrimental, compared to the head injury of an older play,” said Ann McKee, chief neuropathologist at Boston University, in the documentary The United States of Football. In a 2016 interview with the Washington Post, McKee elaborated. “Their heads are a larger part of their body, and their necks are not as strong as adults’ necks. So kids may be at a greater risk of head and brain injuries than adults,” she said. “I would advise kids not to play any sports, such as tackle football, where they are exposed to repeated blows to the head.”
For this study, Stitzel and colleagues collected head impact data from youth athletes over the course of four years by outfitting their helmets with Head Impact Telemetry (HIT, get it?) systems that measure the speed and strength of hits to the head. They then broke the 119 athletes into three categories: 10-year-olds (39 participants), 12-year-olds (48), and 13-year-olds (32).
They found that the average kid took about 200 hits to the head per season, but that the most exposed players experienced closer to 450 hits per season. Thirteen-year-olds had the highest “mean linear head acceleration” which is a scientific and sanitized way of saying that their heads snapped back the fastest due to impacts on the field. Not that all such hits can turn a kid’s brain into soup. “It’s important to remember that not all impacts are bad,” Stitzel says. “We don’t know what the negative effects of larger numbers of low magnitude impacts are.”
The results also revealed that all ages were more likely to experience head trauma in games than in practices but, interestingly, 10-year-olds were most likely to experience high acceleration impacts during practice. Older kids, on the other hand, took their hardest hits during games.
Stitzel says that USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football in the U.S., is already implementing changes that could protect youth athletes from brain damage. “I think there are steps in the right direction, such as USA Football’s rookie tackle program designed to graduate players from flag football to 11-on-11,” he says. Stitzel adds that his team’s discovery that younger players are more likely to take serious hits during practice could help influence new guidelines that protect kids’ noggins. “Our study supports the notion that you can…lower practice head impact exposure at lower ages and lighter weights by doing things differently,” he says.