For former NFL players, age they began playing organized football not linked to later health outcomes

Young American football player running back breaking away from an attempted tackle

June 27, 2024 – For former NFL players, beginning to play American football before age 12 appears not to link to adverse health outcomes later in life, according to a study co-authored by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Co-first author of the study, published June 26 in Sports Medicine, was Rachel Grashow, senior research scientist in Harvard Chan School’s Department of Environmental Health and director of epidemiological research initiatives and co-investigator of Family Experiences Managing Football Lives for the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University. Other Harvard Chan School authors included Ran Rotem and Marc Weisskopf.

Prior studies of former NFL players have suggested that starting to play football at younger ages may be linked with worse later life outcomes, such as cognitive symptoms and depression, but those studies had small sample sizes and all of the participants had self-reported cognitive, behavioral, and/or mood symptoms. Large studies have not found a link.

To learn more, researchers analyzed data from a group of nearly 4,200 former NFL players, divided into those who first played football before age 12 and those who first played after age 12. The former players completed questionnaires asking about symptoms of depression and anxiety, perceived cognitive difficulties, neurobehavioral dysregulation, and self-reported health conditions such as headaches, sleep apnea, hypertension, chronic pain, memory loss, and dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

After adjusting for factors such as age, race, body mass index, playing position, number of professional seasons, and past concussion burden, the researchers found no significant relationships between first playing football before age 12 and adverse outcomes later in life.

Future longitudinal cohort studies could help clarify other potentially harmful elements of youth football (e.g., number of years played prior to the NFL) and could assist parents and health care professionals in balancing football’s benefits—such as cardiovascular conditioning, mentoring and community support, teamwork, and self-esteem—with its potential risks, the authors wrote.

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This article was updated on July 16, 2024.