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To McKee’s great surprise, however, early exposure to tackle football was not associated with more severe signs of CTE, or other brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Instead, she found something perhaps even more disturbing. Football players who played tackle football as children suffered the devastating symptoms of brain disease, like cognitive impairment and mood swings, earlier in their lives.

By analyzing the 211 brains, McKee and her team found that those who played tackle football before age 12 — 84 players in total — had an earlier onset of cognitive, behavior and mood symptoms by an average of 13 years, compared to those who started after age 12. Every one year younger the participants began playing tackle football predicted earlier onset of cognitive, behavioral and mood problems by about 2.5 years. Of these 211 men with CTE, 76 were amateur players, and 135 played at the professional level.

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