Why I Am Not Surprised About the Latest CTE Research

3 boys-after-football-game

The latest news from Dr. Ann McKee’s Boston University brain bank is startling but not, unfortunately, that surprising, at least on second thought. The New York Times reported the lab’s research on the brains of 152 athletes who played contact sports as children and who died before turning 30, many by suicide. 

Over 40% of Brains of Athletes Who Played Contact Sports as Children Showed CTE in Latest Study

More than 40 percent of the brains of these athletes (63 of the 152) had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head. Of the 63, 48 had played football, and others had played other contact sports like soccer. Although we don’t know the absolute risks for young people playing contact and collision sports, this latest research is very troubling. 

Many Young Athletes Could Be At Risk

  • More than a quarter of a million U.S. children and youth ages 5 to 14 and more than 1 million US high school athletes play football.
  • More than 1 million play soccer or lacrosse.
  • Hundreds of thousands of other children, adolescents, and young adults in our country participate in other sports with high concussion risks such as soccer, wrestling, and lacrosse.

Dr. McKee’s brain bank studies previously identified CTE in young athletes playing a variety of sports, not just American football. But this recent research documenting more evidence of the risks of CTE in very young athletes should convince more people, including those in the medical community, of the risks of repetitive hits to the brain. 

The Medical Community Has a Role in Preventing CTE

As I wrote in Shaken Brain: The Science, Care, and Treatment of Concussion (Harvard University Press, 2020):

“…. the medical community’s most important obligation is to warn people with repetitive concussions that they face a significant risk. This warning is just as important as warnings about the health risks of other unhealthy activities, such as smoking.” 

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Why, despite more and more evidence of the risks of repeated concussions and subconcussions (“hits”) do we continue to elevate sports prowess for young people with developing brains? I know that there are many ways our young people can participate in activities that can improve their health and well-being without high concussion risks. 

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