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Study fails to find link between high school football and mental, cognitive health issues

A study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found youth who participate in contact sports, including football, are no more likely to experience depression, suicidal thoughts or cognitive impairment than any other children.

The study, conducted by the University of Colorado, followed 10,951 seventh through 12th graders in 1994 and followed them through 2008, checking in at four separate points to collect data. The study's authors split the cohort into four separate groups: no sports, non-contact sports, contact sports other than football and, among males, football.

The study found that, "Football was not significantly associated with impaired cognitive ability, increased depressive symptoms, or increased suicide ideation." It is the largest study to date among those who played high school football in the 1990s.

This chart shows football players among the lowest cohort in terms of depression and suicidal ideation, but first among suicide attempts.

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"Broadly," the study reads, "our results reflect those of several recent studies that failed to find an association between participation in football during high school or college and a host of adverse cognitive and mental well-being outcomes."

From the University of Colorado's summary of the study:

After controlling for socioeconomic status, education, race and other factors, the researchers analyzed scores through 2008 on word and number recall and questionnaires asking whether participants had been diagnosed with depression or attempted or thought about suicide.

“We were unable to find any meaningful difference between individuals who participated in contact sports and those who participated in non-contact sports. Across the board, across all measures, they looked more or less the same later in life,” said (lead author, PhD Adam) Bohr.

Football players – for reasons that are not clear – actually were less likely to be depressed in early adulthood compared to other groups.

However, football is not totally in the clear. Football players (along with athletes from any other sport) that suffer concussions are more likely to experience adverse mental affects than those who do not experience concussions. (Duh.)

"Despite this evidence, there is still far from a consensus opinion on the effects of playing football outside the professional game. Adverse later-life outcomes from football have been hypothesized as a result of concussion and subconcussive hits. In fact, studies have shown that the concussion incidence among football, hockey, and rugby players is significantly higher than that of other sports," the study says.

The authors could not tell how long their subjects played football, what position they played, how many concussive or sub-concussive hits they endured and to what degree.

More work is necessary on this issue, the authors said.

Read the full study here.