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With another football season getting underway, parents of players anywhere from college down to Pop Warner are uneasy about the latest reports linking the sport to brain damage.
Researchers reported in July that the degenerative brain disease known as CTE was diagnosed in 99% of 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated for research. This latest Boston University study -- while strengthening the link between pro football and the devastating disease -- raised as many questions as it answered.
Because most of the brains belonged to former players whose relatives were concerned about CTE symptoms, the sample was not representative of all NFL players. Anyone wondering what percentage of NFL players will develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy is still in the dark.
Amid the uncertainly, what's a parent or player to do? It's hard to know, because so many questions remain unanswered. How common is CTE in football players compared with the general population? What are the risk factors? Can better helmet technology help? Can CTE be diagnosed in living players? And can CTE be treated?
While the science of football and brain trauma is in its infancy, a growing body of research paints a sobering picture.
Children's brains go through an incredible spurt of growth and maturation between the ages of 10 and 12, when hundreds of thousands of them play youth football. It's not just major concussions that can produce harm.
"If you subject the brain to repeated blows at that age, it may get in the way of normal brain development and lead to neurological problems later in life," says Robert Stern, an expert on CTE at Boston University.
A study published in 2013 looked at 50 players ages 9 through 12 who wore equipment to count head impacts. On average, players incurred 240 head impacts in one season of practices and games.
Two Boston University studies of about 40 former NFL players who first played youth tackle football before age 12 found they did significantly worse on memory and thinking tests, and had more brain abnormalities than those who started later.
All the players played pro ball, so more research is needed on those who played only in high school or college. Even so, it is clear young brains are at risk.
To find more of the answers players and parents are seeking, a seven-year study launched in 2015 to compare former NFL players, college players and men who avoided contact sports.
In the meantime, a handful of players and others close to the sport are reacting to the research.
Days after news of the 99% findings, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who's 26 and studying for a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quit the NFL. And last week, former NFL center Ed Cunningham resigned from his job as an ESPN color analyst, saying, "I just don't think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it's unacceptable."
Ultimately, parents and players will have to ask themselves whether the benefits of football are worth the risk of damaged brains later in life.
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