Playing football professionally has been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. But what happens to children who start the sport early, before they even turn 12?
That’s the question neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, whose groundbreaking work on CTE has uncovered the neurological risks of playing football, set out to answer in a new study published in the Annals of Neurology. In her team’s analysis of the brains of 211 deceased football players who had been diagnosed with CTE, along with detailed behavioral questionnaires filled out by their relatives and interviews with family members, McKee expected to find more severe signs of the condition in people who started the game young. These would be visible in more pronounced deposits of tau protein, which kills brain cells, in the brains of men who sustained hundreds — if not thousands — of extra head impacts as children.