This week, some sobering news out of Boston University: Former NFL players who played tackle football before the age of 12 show more decreases in memory and cognitive functions than those who started playing tackle later, as teens.

Granted, this is only one study. But because it does deliver some information, parents of young athletes might want to take note. Here’s what we know.

The study included 42 former NFL players. It was designed to learn more about how to better diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits. All the players in the study had already experienced some memory and cognitive function problems.

The participants were divided into two age-matched groups. One group included those who played tackle before the age of 12. The other group included those who started playing as teens. They were given a number of tests. The result? Those who played tackle football earlier performed about 20 percent worse on some tests than those who started playing later.

According to researchers, the age 12 was an important factor. This is the age at which a child’s brain sees a dramatic amount of rapid brain growth and development in different areas. This is also when the protective coating over nerve fibers starts developing.

When the study was completed, the senior investigator made this statement: “Children, at a time of important brain development, should not be exposed to hundreds of hits to their heads.”

There’s plenty more we need to learn. But as the medical research community ups its interest in concussions and the aftermath of concussions, we will eventually get the facts we need to make sound judgments about whether we want our youngest athletes to be involved in tackle football.

Parents also need to remember that this study aside, we know younger children’s brains are still developing and are more vulnerable. We also know that concussions in younger children require more time to resolve. These are facts parents can use right now.

For those struggling with this issue, playing later doesn’t necessarily nix your child’s chances of becoming a star athlete. Remember, Tom Brady didn’t start playing until high school.

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