Brain Health: The Risk Associated with Young Athletes and Contact Sports

Throughout childhood, we’re encouraged to participate in physical exercise. Remaining active supports a healthy body and mind, and in turn, optimal development and function.

What if, however, those who played contact sports, were doing more harm than good?

Based on recent findings, it appears that professional football players and boxers are not the only ones in harms way. While studying young, healthy athletes, researchers discovered that contact sports do, in fact, changes both the structure and function of the brain.

Study Finds — Young Athletes Are At Risk When Playing Contact Sports

Conducted at St. Michael’s Hospital, this recent study found that those who play contact sports, develop changes within their brain’s structure, influencing neural function. As expected, sports that have a greater risk of body contact, showcase greater effects on the brain.

Published in Frontiers of Neurology, here are some of the key points:

  • Performing preseason brain scans on 65 varsity athletes, 23 participants were participating in collision sports (where body contact is encouraged); 22 were participating in contact sports (where body-to-body contact is allowed, but not an integral part of the game); and 20 were participating in non-contact sports, such as volleyball.
  • When comparing contact and collision sports, these athletes displayed differences in their brain. Function was altered, and chemical markers became apparent — those that are typically associated with a brain injury.

In the past, much of the research has focused on the long-term effects of hockey and football players. Less is known about contact sports, however, where contact is permitted, but not integral, such as gameplay within soccer, field hockey and basketball. While studying both men and women, it’s become clear that there are progressive differences among those who play collision, contact and non-contact sports.

One of these differences was in relation to the athletes’ white matter. This tissue consists of nerve fibers and myelin, allowing the brain to communicate. More specifically, when focusing on athletes exposed to higher levels of contact, signs of reduced communication were shown in areas of the brain responsible for motor function and vision.

Although this was the case, these differences did not seem to impair day-to-day functioning. These athletes did not report any health issues and were all active athletes. With that being said, the researchers believe that this study fills a critical gap in terms of how contact affects young, healthy brains.

Among those who do play contact sports, understanding this progression, could help us better understand the negative long-term consequences associated with heavy contact sports. Based on the past and present research, there are growing concerns that these types of sports increase one’s risk of cognitive impairments, depression, memory problems, and even an earlier onset of Alzheimer’s.

Brain Injury and Alzheimer’s

Although contact sports most certainly showcase the potential effect of minor brain injuries, these effects can also be reviewed in a more general sense. Within one key study, for instance, it was found that young adults who experienced a moderate to severe head injury, doubled their risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Within this study, the US navy and marine veterans of the second world war were of interest. Studying over 7,000 war vets, 548 had sustained a head injury, whereas 1228 did not. Even after adjusting for the effects of age, medical records of head injury, resulted in a doubled risk of both Alzheimer’s and non-Alzheimer’s dementia.

Like the study above, the worse the head injury, the worse the result — in this case, the higher the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. After suffering from a moderate head injury, there was a 2.3-fold increase in risk, whereas a severe head injury quadrupled one’s risk.

  • Moderate = An injury that was considered to be a loss of consciousness or a case of amnesia that lasted no more than 30 minutes.
  • Severe = The individual was admitted to a hospital and remained unconsciousness or in a state of amnesia for 24+ hours.

As researchers continue to uncover clues regarding head injuries early in life, they may uncover clues regarding the progression of this disease. Is there a singular cause — or does Alzheimer’s develop based on a series of events?

Although we do not fully understand the cause of this progressive disease, one thing is certain — Alzheimer’s is caused by brain cell death. As fewer nerve cell and connections become apparent, more severe symptoms begin to surface.

The solution?

Protect your brain!

Whether that means wearing a helmet when you cycle, eating brain-boosting foods, or participating in physical exercise on a regular basis, you can actively intervene. After all, Ben Franklin said it best, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Believe you’re already displaying possible warning signs of Alzheimer’s? If so, you can still be proactive. Put your mind to rest and check out BrainTest today.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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