Background: Repetitive head impacts in young athletes are potentially detrimental to later life (e.g., age 50 + years) neurological function; however, it is unknown what the short-term effects (e.g., age 20 years) are in collegiate student-athletes.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of the estimated age of first exposure to American tackle football participation on neurocognitive performance and symptom severity scores in collegiate student-athletes.
Methods: We used a cohort study in which neurocognitive performance was assessed using the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) test in 4376 male athletes (age 19.3 ± 1.5 years, mass 96.3 ± 20.3 kg, height 185.0 ± 7.4 cm). Athletes were grouped by sport participation [American football (n = 3462) or non-contact (n = 914)] and estimated age of first exposure [< 12 years (n = 3022) or ≥ 12 years (n = 1354)]. The outcome measures were the four primary cognitive scores and the symptom severity score from ImPACT. We assessed primary outcomes across groups, controlling for age, learning accommodations, and concussion history.
Results: Neurocognitive performance was not associated with the estimated age of first exposure-by-group interaction.
Conclusion: Our findings indicate that participation in American tackle football before age 12 years does not result in neurocognitive deficits in college. Therefore, we suggest the following: the consequences of early exposure to repetitive head impacts do not manifest by college, the ImPACT test was not sensitive enough to identify the effects of an earlier estimated age of first exposure, or there is no association between an earlier estimated age of first exposure and neurocognitive functioning. Future longitudinal studies are warranted.