By Ken Reed

The latest study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has revealed that it’s not just the number of blows to the head over time that leads to CTE but the cumulative force of those hits.

Historically, we first thought it was multiple concussions that led to CTE. However, newer research suggested that it was a high number of sub-concussive hits to the brain that were the primary cause. Now, we know it’s not just the number of hits to the head but the collective force of those hits over time.

The new study, published in Nature Communications, is the largest CTE study to date. It examined the root causes of CTE, which is associated with everything from memory loss to impulsive behavior to suicidal thoughts and depression.

Using data from 34 published studies that tracked blows to the head measured by sensors inside of football helmets, it was discovered that the worst forms of CTE showed up in players who had absorbed the greatest cumulative force of hits to the head, meaning they were hit in the head often and hard over a long period of time.

According to the study, the football players that absorb the hardest hits to the head are defensive backs, wide receivers, and running backs.

So, given what we know today about the causes of CTE, what can be done to lower the risk to football players and other athletes in contact sports?

“Anything that reduces the number of hits and force of the hits could be beneficial,” according to senior author Jesse Mez, an associate professor of neurology at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, and codirector of clinical research at the Boston University CTE Center. “This would include starting to play at an older age, playing fewer games, not hitting in practice, or reducing drills that encourage hard hitting.”

For starters, that advice could translate into playing flag football — or another sport — instead of tackle football until high school, eliminating full contact hitting in practices during the season and severely restricting preseason full contact sessions, and strongly penalizing any blows to the head in games, whether they are perceived to be intentional or not.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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