“We are born with a certain number of neurons. We can only lose them; we cannot create new neurons to replenish old or dying ones.”
— Dr. Bennet Omalu, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 11, 2015.
Dr. Omalu, a forensic pathologist, gained notoriety in 2005 after he published a case report in the journal Neurosurgery entitled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” That NFL player was “Iron Mike” Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall-of-Fame center who died in 2002 at the age of 50 after years of suffering from symptoms of neurocognitive degeneration. It was Dr. Omalu, then working at the University of Pittsburgh, who discovered the microscopic hallmarks of CTE in Webster’s brain at autopsy. There were other NFL players who followed and, later, Iraq War veterans — people who were debilitated by severe headaches, memory loss, dementia, and severe depression before their own premature deaths — whom Dr. Omalu diagnosed with CTE. And now, Dr. Omalu, in a New York Times op-ed (reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), gives perhaps the most credible and compelling case for keeping children off the gridiron:
We’ve known since 1964 that cigarette smoking is harmful to your health. We’ve known for more than 40 years that alcohol damages the developing brain of a child. We’ve known since the mid-1970s that asbestos causes cancer and other serious diseases. Knowing what we know now, we do not smoke in enclosed public spaces like airplanes, we have passed laws to keep children from smoking or drinking alcohol, and we do not use asbestos as an industrial product.
As we become more intellectually sophisticated and advanced, with greater and broader access to information and knowledge, we have given up old practices in the name of safety and progress. Except when it comes to sports.
Dr. Omalu points to youth football, ice hockey, boxing and mixed martial arts as sports which risk permanent brain damage and asks parents and coaches:
Why, then, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to this risk?
If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms. If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage, which we know now by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease that I first diagnosed in 2002.
Depending on the severity of the condition, the child now has a risk of manifesting symptoms of CTE such as major depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts and actions, loss of intelligence as well as dementia later in life. CTE has also been linked to drug and alcohol abuse as the child enters his 20s, 30s and 40s.
When it comes to endangering the present and future health and well-being of young athletes, by parents and coaches who allow and encourage them to play these sports, Dr. Omalu will not be an accomplice:
Our children are minors who have not reached the age of consent. It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable among us. The human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old. We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions. No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.
We have a legal age for drinking alcohol, for joining the military, for voting, for smoking, for driving and for consenting to have sex. We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings.
Next week, the movie “Concussion” will be released. Filmed in Pittsburgh, the movie stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu. Here is the trailer:
More about concussions on The PediaBlog here.