It's no secret that football and concussions go hand in hand; studies looking at the brains of deceased and retired NFL players have found a high prevalence of neuro trauma and cognitive deficits. But new research out this week in the journal Neurology calls into question whether kids should be playing tackle football at all before the age of 12. Testing 42 former NFL players, half of whom played before age 12 and half of whom didn't, researchers found that while all former players performed below average on many of the memory tests given, those who started playing younger performed considerably worse in every category, according to a release at Eureka Alert.
"Our study suggests that there may be a critical window of brain development during which repeated head impacts can lead to thinking and memory difficulties later in life," one researcher says. "If larger studies confirm this association, there may be a need to consider safety changes in youth sports." Another researcher points out that because the study didn't take into account the number of hits players sustained, it remains unclear which matters more—the age one starts playing or how knocked around one gets. The NFL, meanwhile, could fork over up to $5 million to every former player who develops neurological impairment in a settlement that involves 20,000 former players but is still under judicial review, reports Reuters. (A concussion deal from last year was scrapped because the NFL wouldn't be paying players enough.)