Repeated brain trauma in high school sports can have long-term repercussions. (Stocksy)
Researchers have discovered that a neurodegenerative disease linked to pro football players is also showing up in men who played high school contact sports.
Scientists from the Mayo Clinic have discovered that about one-third of men who played contact sports and whose brains had been donated to the Mayo Clinic brain bank had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by repeated brain trauma.
Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, aggression, suicidal thoughts, depression, and dementia, although the only way to officially diagnose CTE is after death, when brain tissue can be analyzed for an abnormal protein called Tau.
CTE has famously been linked to NFL players: The disease has shown up in several former NFL players who committed suicide, including Junior Seau and Terry Long. Family members of Frank Gifford, who died in August, recently announced that the former player suffered from CTE, and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre has said he suspects he may have the disease.
For the latest research, which was published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, Mayo scientists analyzed clinical records of more than 1,700 cases in their brain bank.
Researchers found 66 men who had participated in contact sports during their youth. Of those men, 32 percent showed evidence of CTE.
By comparison, none of 198 brains of people who didn’t have documentation of participating in contact sports had CTE, including those of 66 women.
Lead study author Kevin Bieniek, a predoctoral student in the Mayo Graduate School’s Neurobiology of Disease program, tells Yahoo Health that the study was launched after he noticed that a man in the brain bank who had evidence of CTE had played high school football.
He calls the findings “surprising,” noting that CTE was discovered among former players of several contact sports such as football, boxing, wrestling, rugby, basketball, and baseball. While the overall numbers are low and therefore too small to show statistical significance, Bieniek notes that more football players had CTE than players of any other sport.
Not everyone who plays contact sports and suffers head injuries will develop CTE, but Bieniek and his team found two genetic markers that may increase a person’s risk of developing the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s unknown how common or prevalent CTE is among the general population. However, a study of 3,439 NFL players from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that former players were more than three times more likely than the general population to develop a brain or nervous system disorder.
CTE was the subject of a major lawsuit against the NFL by thousands of former pro football players and their families. The 2013 settlement reportedly required the NFL to pay $765 million to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, and medical research for retired players and their families.
Naturally, this raises the question: Should parents discourage their kids from playing contact sports? Bieniek says no.
“There are so many positive benefits of sports,” he says. “I don’t know that there’s necessarily imminent threats of CTE, but the study is good in that it raises awareness both for scientists and the general public that CTE might be more common than we thought.”
However, he says the findings underscore moves that are already being made in contact sports — specifically, limiting head to head contact and encouraging players to wear better, more protective sports equipment.
Bieniek says scientists don’t currently know how many hits or what type of hits it takes until a person develops CTE, but it’s currently being studied. “Just awareness of this is really important,” he says.