There’s no end to headlines about the dangers of head injuries in football. But a new study suggests that high school football, at least, was not associated with cognitive problems — like having trouble remembering words or letters — later in life. Researchers looked at men who graduated high school in Wisconsin in 1957; some had played high school football, some hadn’t. The researchers looked at the cognition and depression scores of 3,904 people, and compared the football players to the non-football players. There was no real difference. Playing the sport didn’t lead to cognitive impairment at age 65, according to a study published today in JAMA Neurology. In fact, the football players were even slightly less likely to have depression.
There are limitations to interpreting the study results, of course. Football may have also changed a lot from the 1950s until now; today, the game may be more aggressive. Still, the study highlights the need for further research and the ways in which the narrative around TBI might have been skewed, co-author Dylan Small says. “There’s a lot of attention on CTE without solid research showing how prevalent it is,” he says. For instance, some football players experiencing depression think they have CTE because they think CTE is extremely common. Then, they feel hopeless and don’t get help because they believe that CTE is “irreversible.” But it could be that they have depression without brain injury, and could be treated.
“My feeling is that, along the spectrum of things that carry health risks, it might be that football is in the moderate category instead of the extreme category,” Small says.