A new Mayo Clinic report suggests that males who participate in amateur contact sports, such as high school football, face an increased risk of developing a degenerative brain disorder that results in memory loss, depression and dementia.
Researchers at Mayo Clinic's Jacksonville, Fla., campus published the findings in the December issue of Acta Neuropathological. A press release issued Tuesday specifically notes that participants in "football, boxing, wrestling, rugby, basketball, baseball and other sports" have a higher chance of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease that can impact mood, behavior and cognition.
CTE is caused by repetitive brain trauma and recently has become a source of controversy in the NFL. A report released in September by researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found that 96 percent (87 of 91) of deceased NFL players involved in the study were afflicted with CTE at the time of their deaths.
The Mayo Clinic Brain Bank in Florida found that 32 percent of males who competed in amateur sports growing up showed evidence of CTE, according to the new report. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, so research was done using brains donated for research.
Mayo Clinic neuropathologist Dr. Dennis Dickson, the study's senior author, says this is the first study conducted looking for CTE in non-professional athletes, in accordance with criteria established by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke earlier this year.
"(The) work is groundbreaking," Dickson said via press release. "The frequency with which (we) found CTE pathology in former athletes exposed to contact sports was surprising."
Kevin Bieniek, a predoctoral student in Mayo Graduate School's Neurobiology of Disease program in Jacksonville, led the research team. He said the findings "could present a real challenge down the road."
The report says Mayo Clinic examined clinical records of 1,721 cases from the Brain Bank for its research. It found that 32 percent of the 66 males who had participated in contact sports growing up showed CTE when the brain tissue was examined.
By comparison, none of the 198 brains of those who had not participated in contact sports during their youth exhibited any sign of CTE. That number includes all 66 women who were examined.
"The purpose of our study is not to discourage children and adults from participating in sports, because we believe the mental and physical health benefits are great," Bieniek wrote of his findings. "It is vital that people use caution when it comes to protecting the head. Through CTE awareness, greater emphasis will be placed on making contact sports safer, with better protective equipment and fewer head-to-head contacts."
Despite that caveat, the findings pose another stumbling block for parents considering enrolling their children in athletic activities. Two University of Minnesota doctors made national headlines last month when they suggested that high schools should drop football due to concussion-related health concerns.
The U.S. Soccer Association also issued new recommendations last month that either ban or limit headers for athletes younger than 10 years old. That response came after a class action lawsuit over the increased number of concussions being reported among children.
Will Smith is starring in an upcoming movie called "Concussion" that details how CTE first became an issue for the NFL several years ago — and remains an issue today.
Eric Crowley, a Mayo Clinic athletic trainer who spoke about concussions at Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Symposium last month in Rochester, said education is key so families know the long-term risks involved with their immediate choices. He's hopeful the movie can help raise awareness of a serious issue.
"In any sport where there's contact, there's a risk for a concussion," Crowley said. "Hopefully, it gives more education to players, athletes and parents. It is letting them make a choice. I am a football fan, and I enjoy watching football, but it's tough to see these significant concussions, and athletes receiving multiple concussions. Hopefully, it is more of an education piece."