Around The Hornet: High contact sports may cause irreversible brain damage in children

Jennifer Despres

No American child under the age of 18 should play any of the big-six high contact sports, according to the pathologist who discovered the degenerative brain disorder called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

Dr. Bennet Omalu is a Nigerian born forensic pathologist whose story about discovering CTE was told, with Will Smith portraying him in the movie “Concussion.”

Dr. Bennet Omalu is a Nigerian physician, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who was the first to publish findings of chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players while working at the Allegheny County Coroner's Office in Pittsburgh. He later became chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, and is a professor in the University of California, Davis, Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Photo credit: CTE News/Facebook

CTE is a neurodegenerative brain disease caused by repetitive hits to the head, with high-contact sports athletes and veterans being the most susceptible to acquiring it.

At the age of 50, legendary Pittsburgh Steeler’s center, Mike Webster, died of a heart attack in 2002. Though during his career, “Iron Mike” experienced four Super Bowl wins, his post-NFL years consisted of setbacks such as going broke, enduring divorce, forgetting how to eat, and his behavior becoming more and more erratic.

When Webster’s body arrived at the Coroner’s office where Omalu was practicing, he wasn’t convinced heart problems were his only malady, considering his known erratic behavior throughout the community. After verifying he died of a heart attack, the pathologist knew examining his brain could lead to the revelation behind his mental decline.

Upon examination, Omalu found Webster’s brain hadn’t experienced the shrinkage one would generally see in Alzheimer’s, nor the contusions seen in dementia patients. What he did find was brown and red splotches riddled throughout, which was consistent with what he knew to be tau proteins.

Omalu had the feeling he was onto a big, new discovery, so he published his findings in the Neurosurgery Journal, calling the disease CTE. He named the NFL as a likely culprit.

Presently, CTE can only be absolutely identified by an autopsy, but the signs and symptoms of the disease in the afflicted are apparent.

“Oftentimes in CTE, memory problems, difficulty multitasking, behavior problems such as aggression, and mood problems including depression worsen over time,” said Michael Alosco, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University. “If they live into older age, those with CTE will develop dementia.”

Hall of Fame center, Mike Webster, was the first NFL player diagnosed with CTE by Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2002. Photo credit: Mike Webster/Facebook

Omalu believes this highly avoidable brain damaging epidemic is far worse than the opioid crisis Americans are now facing.

He cited a Swedish Study which shows children subjected to concussions early on in life are more likely to die by violence or suicide by the age of 42. Children are also at higher risk of dropping out of college and battling drug and alcohol addictions.

In an interview with ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, Omalu spoke about the potential risk of brain damage children are being exposed to during contact sports.

“There is no such thing as a safe blow to the head,” Omalu said. “And then when you have repeated blows to your head, it increases the risk of permanent brain damage. Once you start having hundreds or thousands of blows, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to permanent brain damage. The brain does not have a reasonable capacity to regenerate.”

Because of greater awareness of CTE, it was reported by Forbes that there had been a reduction of high school sports participation for the first time in 30 years.

“No child under the age of 18 in America today should play any of the (six) high impact, high contact sports,” said Omalu.

The big six, according to him, are:

  • Football
  • Ice Hockey
  • Mixed Martial Arts
  • Rugby
  • Boxing
  • Wrestling

“And children under the age of 12-14 should not play soccer the way we play today,” said Omalu. He also suggested there should be no heading allowed in soccer under the age of 18.

Along with Webster’s notable mental decline as a result of CTE, several other high-profile athletes suffered similar but much more dramatic fates.

New England Patriots tight end, Aaron Hernandez had just been acquitted of a double homicide when he decided to take his own life by hanging in his prison cell. A post-mortem brain scan revealed brain shrinkage and infiltration of black spots brought on by tau proteins.

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez who played for three seasons until his career came to a halt after being convicted of murder. Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons

During his lifetime, Hernandez exhibited the characteristics of the disease, such as:

  • Changes in mood, such as depression, aggression, irritability, impulsivity and anxiety
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Memory problems

Researchers at a brain bank in Boston examined a little over 200 brains donated by family members of deceased football players from all levels and 90 percent showed evidence of CTE to some extent. That included the brains of 110 out of 111 NFL players.

One of whom was known as the hard-hitting linebacker, Junior Seau. Only a year after Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson took his life by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, Seau mirrored his path. The intent of both players was to preserve their brains to enable an accurate diagnosis of what was ailing them, believing wholeheartedly what they were suffering from was CTE.

After Seau’s family donated his brain to the National Institute of Health (NIH), it was revealed the damage to his brain was consistent with CTE, and the findings were similar to the many others who have suffered from repeated head trauma.

Omalu believes parents must ask themselves an important question. “Do I love football more than I love my child?”

The NFL has begun to encourage children to steer away from traditional tackle football since their top health and safety officials finally acknowledged a link between participating in football and CTE.

Flag football has since been gaining in popularity.