A study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder has found that adolescents who play contact sports, including football, are no more likely to experience cognitive impairment, depression or suicidal thoughts in early adulthood than their peers.
The extensive study, which was published this month in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, followed nearly 11,000 for 14 years and concluded that those who play sports are actually less likely to suffer from mental health issues by their late 20s to early 30s.
“There is a common perception that there’s a direct causal link between youth contact sports, head injuries and downstream adverse effects like impaired cognitive ability and mental health,” said lead author Adam Bohr, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology. “We did not find that.”
The study is unique in that it is one of the few that looked specifically at adolescent participation in contact sports.
“When people talk about NFL players, they are talking about an elite subset of the population,” senior author Matthew McQueen, an associate professor of integrative physiology, told CU Boulder Today. “We wanted to look specifically at kids and determine if there are true harms that are showing up early in adulthood.”
The study analyzed data from 10,951 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a representative sample of youth in seventh through 12th grades who have been interviewed and tested repeatedly since 1994.
Participants were categorized into groups: those who, in 1994, said they intended (during the upcoming year) to participate in contact sports; those who intended to play non-contact sports; and those who did not intend to play sports. Among males, 26 percent said they intended to play football.
“We were unable to find any meaningful difference between individuals who participated in contact sports and those who participated in non-contact sports. Across the board, across all measures, they looked more or less the same later in life,” said Bohr.
Football players – for reasons that are not clear – actually were less likely to be depressed in early adulthood compared to other groups.
“Right now, football is in many ways being compared to cigarette smoking – no benefit and all harm,” said McQueen, who is also director for the Pac-12 Concussion Coordinating Unit. “It is absolutely true that there is a subset of NFL players who have experienced horrible neurological decline, and we need to continue to research to improve our understanding of that important issue.”