A tough question for parents: Considering the risks for brain damage, should you let your son play football?

In recent years there has been increasing awareness of the long-term effects of brain trauma.  Recent studies have confirmed that a history of at least one mild-traumatic brain injury increases the likelihood of dementia later in life.  

Trauma appears to predispose to not only Alzheimer’s disease, but also Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).  Individuals who suffer from multiple traumatic injuries are particularly vulnerable to a disorder that has been called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.  

This syndrome has also been described in wrestlers, boxers, war veterans and altheletes involved in contact sports. CTE  begins as a behavioral disorder with anxiety, anger, disinhibition, and sometimes problems with memory or multi-tasking and is followed by the development of motor problems, dementia and eventually death.  The brain shows the pathological accumulation of the tau protein and sometimes a protein called TDP-43.  No treatments exist yet for CTE, but avoiding head trauma is the best way to avoid this devastating disorder.

With that in mind, parents should carefully consider the risks for long-term brain damage when deciding whether or not to let their sons play football.

Dr. Bruce Miller, Director of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and Chief Medical Officer of The John Douglas French Alzheimer's Foundation, heads a team involved in a study analyzing head impacts incurred by NFL players and the part it may play in future dementia.