Parents Need Answers About Youth Sports Concussions

When 49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland announced his early retirement from the NFL after just one season, the league and fans reacted with shock. But as a father, a neuroscientist and a geriatrician, I can imagine all too well the immense relief that Borland’s parents likely felt knowing they would no longer have to watch their son take a beating on Sunday afternoons.

My life’s work is ending Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, the very things that Borland feared developing in his later life. I am deeply committed to strengthening our scientific understanding of the causes of dementia–including untangling the impact of sports-related childhood concussions (the sort that Borland suffered before entering the NFL) on later-life cognitive function.

As a parent, it wouldn’t take much evidence for me to decide to keep my two now grown children out of high-impact sports like football and soccer. But as a scientist and a physician, I have a different perspective: I can see clearly just how much we still don’t know–and how much we need to learn–to make well-founded, smart public health recommendations about childhood sports participation and concussion risks.

When it comes to adult traumatic brain injury and dementia risks, the evidence is more established. Last year, the NFL stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of its retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and predicted that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

There’s a key difference, though, between what we know about the link between adult traumatic brain injury and later life dementia, and what we know about childhood concussions and later life dementia. The truth is, we know very little about how childhood concussions influence the risk for dementia in adulthood. We need to accelerate this research so that —> Read More