New Study Finds CTE Is Common in Brains of Athletes Under 30

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Aug. 29, 2023 – Among contact sport athletes younger than 30, researchers found that 4 in 10 had the brain disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. 

The study was published Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology and examined the donated brains of 152 athletes ranging in age from 13 to 29 years old. The study was conducted by researchers at Boston University, who noted that 3 to 4 years of time on the field appeared to be the difference between whether a player was likely to have signs of CTE or not. The youngest age of athletes diagnosed with CTE was 17 years old.

People in the study played sports including football, ice hockey, soccer, rugby, and wrestling.

Among the athletes, suicide was the most common cause of death, and unintentional overdose was the second most common. The researchers found no differences in cause of death based on whether someone was diagnosed with CTE. 

The researchers analyzed the brains of 152 people, and 41% of them were diagnosed with CTE. One woman was diagnosed with CTE, and the rest were men. Of the 63 people diagnosed with CTE, 60 had signs of mild stage disease (called stage I or II). Three people had stage III, and those three people included one former National Football League player, one college football player, and one professional rugby player. No one in the study was diagnosed with the most severe level of the disease, called stage IV. The brains were donated from 2008 to 2022.

Among the donors, 111 were white, 27 were Black, one was American Indian or Alaska Native, and 13 were multiracial, another race such as Tongan, or their race was unspecified. Black donors were more likely to be diagnosed with CTE than other donors. Black brain donors overall tended to be older than donors of other races by an average of more than 1.5 years, and Black donors averaged an additional 4 years of football play. 

Those diagnosed with CTE tended to be, on average, 4 years older than people who were not diagnosed. When just evaluating football players, those who were diagnosed with CTE played an average of 3 years longer than players not diagnosed with CTE. The woman who was diagnosed with CTE played collegiate soccer.

“It seems to be well accepted now that you can play at a very high level of elite American football or ice hockey and get CTE,” said the director at the university’s CTE Center, Ann McKee, MD, in a statement. “But we’re seeing the beginnings of this disease in young people who were primarily playing amateur sports.”

Many family members reported that the donors had cognitive and neurobehavioral symptoms, and those symptoms were common regardless of whether the researchers found a donor to have CTE. Symptoms such as depression, impulsivity, and explosivity were common among donors, and the researchers wrote that the finding emphasizes “that not all contact sport athletes with symptoms have CTE.”

“These findings emphasize the dual roles of age and duration of exposure to [repetitive head impacts] in the development of CTE, even among younger individuals," the authors summarized.