A Mayo Clinic study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that varsity football players from 1956 to 1970 did not have an increased risk of degenerative brain diseases, compared with athletes in other varsity sports.
The researchers reviewed all the yearbooks and documented team rosters for Mayo High School and Rochester High School, now called John Marshall High School, in Rochester. The high school football players were compared with athletes who did not play football, including swimmers, basketball players and wrestlers.
Using the medical records linkage system of the Rochester Epidemiology Project, each student was observed for about 40 years after participation in high school sports.
Among the 296 students who played football, the researchers found:
Among the 190 athletes who did not play football, the researchers found:
- One case of dementia
- Four cases of mild cognitive impairment
- Three cases of parkinsonism
- Zero cases of ALS
- 14 cases of head trauma
The football players were found to have a suggestive increased risk of medically documented head trauma, especially in the 153 students who played football for more than one season. But they still did not show increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
This study mirrors a previous Mayo Clinic study of high school athletes who played between 1946 and 1956. That study also found no increased risk of degenerative brain diseases. While football from 1956 to 1970 was somewhat similar to present day, including body weight, athletic performance and equipment, football-related concussions still were minimized as “getting your bell rung,” the researchers note.
Football has continued to evolve. Helmets, for example, have gone from leather to hard plastic shells. However, helmets do not eliminate concussions and may provide players with a false sense of protection, says Rodolfo Savica, M.D., Ph.D., Neurology/Health Sciences Research, who is the senior author of the study.
The researchers point out that high school sports offer clear benefits of physical fitness on cardiovascular health, and some studies also have suggested a possible protective effect against later degenerative brain illness. But the researchers caution that additional studies are needed to explore more recent eras and involve players who participate at the collegiate and professional levels.
“This study should not be interpreted as evidence that football-related head trauma is benign,” the researchers write. “The literature on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in college and professional football players seems irrefutable, with reports of devastating outcomes. However, there may be a gradient of risk, with low potential in high school football players.”