Repeated exposure to head injuries while young is linked to an increased risk of developing depression and dementia in later life, a major study has claimed.
The research, published by the Boston University School of Medicine, adds to the growing body of evidence pointing to a long-term negative impact of contact sports, such as rugby and football, on the neural health of participants.
However, the study, which is the largest of its kind, is among the first to “examine the possible role of having a history of exposure to repetitive head impacts, including those leading to “subconcussive” injuries, in these later-life problems”.
The research looked at the medical records of over 13,000 participants with an average age of 62. Of those, five per cent reported “exposure to previous repetitive head impacts through contact sports, abuse or military service”.
The scientists then compared this group with the general population to identify later-life risks.
The findings reveal that participants with a “history of both repetitive head impacts and TBI” reported “greater depression symptoms than those who did not have such history”.
Likewise, the at-risk group reported higher symptom scores of depression, regardless of age, race or education level.
Commenting on the study, author and associate professor Michael Alosco said: “The findings underscore that repetitive hits to the head, such as those from contact sport participation or physical abuse, might be associated with later-life symptoms of depression.
“It should be made clear that this association is likely to be dependent on the dose or duration of repetitive head impacts and this information was not available for this study.”
Co-author Robert Stern added: “These findings add to the growing knowledge about the long-term neurological consequences of brain trauma.”
The study comes after Scotland’s official footballing body banned the heading of the football among young people after research, published by the University of Glasgow, found that professional football players are “three and a half times” more likely to die of a degenerative brain disease.
According to the latest statistics, there were 348,000 admissions to UK hospitals with an acquired brain injury in 2016-17 – the latest data available.