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New Study Links Brain Damage to Contact Sports

Should your children play contact sports?   There is new information available to parents about the longer-term health effects  to consider when making decisions about which sports to encourage, and what precautions to take for contact sports.

The Mayo Clinic is a well-respected medical research and treatment facility in the US.   A recent Mayo Clinic news release links participation in contact sports such as boxing, football, wrestling, basketball and other sports that involve bashing others and getting bashed in turn (dare I mention hockey?) with a high incidence of a progressive degenerative brain disease called  "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" (CTE).

It had already been established that many professional athletes  who are exposed to repeated  head impacts have a higher incidence of CTE than others.  The new study shows that even people who just played high-impact sports as amateurs, or even just in school, also have a significantly higher incidence of CTE. 

What does CTE do?

CTE causes wasting away of brain tissue.  Early symptoms of CTE include headaches and loss of ability to concentrate.  Later,  a CTE sufferer may demonstrate short-term memory loss,  depression and irritability, difficulty making decisions, emotional instability and impulsive behaviour. In the later stages,  all of these may become worse; the person may show aggression,  difficulties with speech and language, vision problems, difficulty  with muscular weakness or control, and dementia.

Authors of the Mayo Clinic study emphasize that they value the mental and physical health benefits of playing sports, but that it is extremely important to protect players'  heads from injury -- even "mild" impacts.

Other factors are also implicated in CTE, including a possible genetic predisposition, as well as stress, and alcohol and substance abuse.

The Mayo Clinic website says,  "CTE causes ongoing pathological changes that once are started, continue to have an effect for years or decades after the original traumatic brain injury or after an individual retires from a sport. Symptoms progress throughout an individual's life."

And meanwhile ...

You and your offspring can make joint decisions about what activities best suit your family.  Team sports that tend to be  high-impact?  You can consider how best to protect the player from head  injuries.  Or you can decide that other activities  may pose less risk of  mental decline in later years:  skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking, swimming, dancing, hiking, running ... there's really no shortage of  relatively violence-free  sports to enjoy. 

And while considering which sports to encourage, parents might also consider the recent identification of "nature deficit disorder,"   a result of spending too little time  outdoors in natural surroundings such as forests, and away from machines and electronic devices.  It's not a medical diagnosis, but can better be appreciated by reading a book called "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv.