High-schoolers in the 1950s and 1960s who played football did not suffer elevated rates of brain disorders as they aged, according to a Mayo Clinic analysis, but its authors warned that the results don’t absolve today’s players from risk.
Dr. Rodolfo Savica and colleagues studied the health records of 296 men who played varsity football in Rochester from 1957 to 1970 and compared their rates of dementia and Parkinson’s disease with 190 high school athletes from the same era who instead took part in swimming, wrestling and basketball.
While there were twice as many cases in the medical records of football players suffering head trauma during their high school years — 34 cases vs. 14 for other athletes — there was no statistical difference in the subsequent years in their rates of dementia or Parkinson’s. Neither group produced any cases of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“We are reassuring a number of people that were playing football in a specific era” that the sport didn’t inflate their risks, Savica said.
The findings match a similar analysis Savica conducted with varsity footballers from 1940 to 1956, but Savica said the new results are important because the helmets worn in the 1960s and 1970s more closely resemble today’s versions.
The results don’t counteract the “irrefutable” reports showing that college and professional football players are at heightened risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease, Savica said.
“However, there maybe a gradient of risk, with low potential in high school football players,” Savica and colleagues wrote in their study, which was published this week in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Whether today’s high school players are at more risk for long-term consequences of head trauma is open to argument. Today’s athletes tend to be bigger, faster and stronger — making the sheer physical force of their tackles and hits more likely to cause injury.
At the same time, concussion awareness has never been greater. There was a “generally nihilistic view of concussion dangers” in football a half-century ago, according to the study, when spearing (headfirst tackling) was legal and getting your “bell rung” wasn’t necessarily a reason to come out of the game.
Players from the 1980s through today are too young to evaluate for the development of age-related brain disorders, so Savica is looking at other ways to assess the impact, if any, of football on their brain health.
Savica said his results so far do not support calls for banning high school football, and that factors such as genetics make the question of who is most at risk from head trauma much more complex.
“We need to do much more,” he said.