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Amateur Football Hits May Cause Later Life Difficulties

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Impacts to the head can pose a great risk to a football player's future health, according to a study. These repeated concussions can cause later life problems such as depression, difficulty in decision-making and other cognitive deficiencies.

A team from the Boston University analyzed 93 former amateur football players whose ages ranged between 24 and 82 years old. The focus of the study was the subconcussive hits or forceful blows that don't cause concussions.

To estimate the total number of head impacts they sustained during their careers, the researchers factored in the total number of seasons and positions played, as well as the level of play and data on impact frequencies determined by past studies on helmet accelerometer.

This method helped the researchers come up with the Cumulative Head Impact Exposure Index (CHII). The average score among all participants was 7,742 impacts. The former footballers who had higher CHII scores suffered more behavioral, mood and cognitive effects.

The team established thresholds to compute the risk levels. If the total number of head hits increase from 6,500 to 12,000, the risk for developing cognitive difficulties surges 25 times. However, these thresholds do not determine safety.

The hit numbers used in the thresholds should not be taken as magic numbers that tell a player when he or she should stop, said Robert Stern, a neurology professor at Boston University. There might be individuals who endured multiple hits earlier in their careers, but are doing just fine in adult life. On the other hand, there could be people who suffered less, but are experiencing substantial later life health problems.

According to Stern, the study on subconcussive hits has helped many leagues to improve concussion management.

"All those changes have been extremely important. That said, my strong feeling is that we also have to focus on the hits that don't get diagnosed as concussions. These repetitive subconcussive hits add up tremendously," said Stern.

The study was released in the Journal of Neurotrauma on March 30. Further research is needed to conclude the accuracy and relevance of CHII.

"I think of the study as just the beginning of trying to characterize exposure in a more precise way," said Michael McClean, study author and a Boston University public health researcher.

Photo: Johann Schwarz | Flickr

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