A recent study has found evidence of brain injuries in football players from a surprisingly young age.
There have been more and more cases confirming that repeated hits to the head have lifelong consequences for professional football players, but a new study has found evidence of lasting effects from head injuries at a much younger age than expected.
The study tested biomarkers in the blood called micro RNAs and found that the college football players had elevated levels of these biomarkers that indicate concussions before the season even started.
Linda Papa, lead author of the study said, “It was quite shocking to learn that the biomarkers were high before they were even involved in one hit or tackle for the season. This suggests that the effects of past head injuries are persisting over time.”
Researchers also conducted cognitive tests with each study participant before and after the season and found that those who struggled with balance and memory had higher levels of the biomarkers. “Some of these players had never been diagnosed with a concussion but they still had elevated biomarker levels in their blood, indicating they likely experienced head injuries that were not severe enough to be clinically diagnosed, but still caused damage. These injuries are also known as subconcussive injuries,” said Papa.
Papa also mentioned that these biomarkers can potentially help identify those less severe head injuries so that players can get the proper treatment.
While concussion protocols and improved equipment have helped in recent years, this new research shows how important it is to monitor players’ brain health and understand how continuous hits can lead to chronic issues. “There is a lot more awareness about head injuries than there used to be, and it’s really up to each parent to do their research and talk to coaches and athletic trainers,” said Papa.
Health concerns were part of Austen Rankin’s decision to hang up his cleats in the middle of his college football career. He was sidelined by a concussion once in college but says he likely suffered concussions while playing football growing up that were undiagnosed.
“Being injured was seen as just part of the game,” said Rankin. “When you took a hard hit, you just got up, shook it off and kept going. Maybe the next day you couldn’t think clearly or light would bother you, but when I was younger there weren’t procedures in place to deal with that.”
Austen is now a trainer and coach and helps educate other players about protecting themselves and playing smart. “It can be really tough to put aside your love for the game and put your health first. I didn’t want to be 40 or 50 years old and have memory problems, so I decided to stop playing and focus on my future career,” said Rankin.