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OUR OPINION: Findings put concussion risks in perspective

If you're a parent of young children, you're probably fretting about whether to let them play contact sports. Do you dare subject them to the risk of concussions?...

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Our Opinion

If you're a parent of young children, you're probably fretting about whether to let them play contact sports. Do you dare subject them to the risk of concussions?

But American teens have been playing those sports for a very long time. So, if that play created a big risk of brain-health problems later on, shouldn't those trends have shown up by now?

Mayo Clinic researchers asked exactly that question in a study published in 2012. And while the findings aren't definitive - nothing in science ever is fully settled - they're both useful and interesting.

We'd even say they're reassuring, though the study takes pains to say they shouldn't be.

In any case, the results do seem to support the notion that reform, not prohibition, is the right approach to the issue of contact sports and young people. (For more on that issue, see the column and other material that the Herald is presenting on today's ThreeSixty page.)

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The Mayo study looked at "all male students who played football from 1946 to 1956 in the high schools of Rochester, Minn., plus a non-football-playing referent group of male students in the band, glee club, or choir," the study reported.

Then the researchers used "all available medical records" to learn whether the football players wound up years later at higher risk of neurological disorders such as dementia, Parkinson's disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

The results?

"We found no increased risk of dementia, Parkinson's disease or ALS among the 438 football players compared with the 140 non-football-playing male classmates," the story reported.

Or as Steven Broglio, director of the Neurotrauma Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, has noted, "We're not seeing an epidemic of men in their early 50s with early Alzheimer's because they played high school football."

But don't go buying Junior his pads and helmet just yet. For the Mayo study hedges its findings: While it's true that football's earlier era featured thin leather helmets and rough-and-tumble rules, it's also true that today's bigger, faster and stronger players tend to hit harder than players used to.

So, "although these results should be somewhat reassuring to high school players from 50 years ago, they should give no reassurance to today's players," the study concludes.

That sounds too conservative, given that the hard-knocks football of the post-World War II era seemed not to saddle the players with any increased risk at all.

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But in any event, besides keeping risks in perspective, society also must recognize that youth sports including hockey and football can benefit players in many ways.

So, as Dr. Robert Glatter, director of sports medicine and traumatic brain injury at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, has concluded, "We need to encourage more children to be active in the sport of their choice, played as safely as possible."

- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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