Contact sports put children at greater risk of fatal brain disease

Contact sports put children at greater risk of fatal brain disease

Australia’s major sporting codes are being asked to ban heading and tackling in children’s sports until they are 14 years old to protect the brain while it is still developing.

If anyone can provide legitimacy to this urgent call, it’s Dr. Chris Nowinski – a former college football player and professional wrestler turned neuroscientist.

Nowinski said children exposed to repeated blows to the head are at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can lead to behavioural and mood problems. It has become so prevalent in the country that the Australian Sports Brain Bank found 12 of the 21 athletes it had examined its since inception in 2018 showed signs of CTE.

Left without treatment, an increasing number of them end up being diagnosed with early onset dementia in care homes. In worst cases, it could result in suicide – half of these identified athletes with CTE were reported to have killed themselves.

“No sport should accept repetitive head impacts before the age of 14,” Nowinski told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Let’s start there. Parents don’t hit their own child in the head, and we need to remove this cultural veil, in that it happening in sports is okay for the developing brain. It’s not.

“That means in soccer there is no heading, and in the [other] football codes there is no tackling. You can play a tag or flag version of the game until age 14 and get all the benefits of exercise and teamwork without sowing the seeds for a brain disease that will kill some of them. It shouldn’t be a debate.”

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Australia is severely behind the US and the UK when it comes to the concussion crisis, which has prompted Nowinski to co-found the Concussion Legacy Foundation in 2007 to campaign for protecting children during brain development.

“CTE is primarily an issue in English-speaking countries and I would put Australia behind America, the UK and Canada - by a long shot, unfortunately,” Nowinski told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We’re still talking about concussions as a cause of CTE, which they’re not. And we’re still debating cause and effect where it’s not being debated in other countries.”

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the United States Soccer Federation has already banned heading for children under 10 in 2015, while the English Football Association is set to prohibit the practice for children under 12 in the next season.

This doesn’t mean contact sports are completely off the table. As long as there is no heading or tackling involved, then children should be fine to partake in the activity. Touch football and Oztag can be another great alternative for children, Nowinski said, noting its rising popularity in Australia.

“When we learnt smoking caused lung cancer we made it illegal for children to smoke,” Nowinski told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Now that we’ve learnt head impacts cause CTE, we have a very important decision to make about whether a child should be allowed to play a game that could cause CTE when there are so many alternative versions of the sport that don’t.”