Research in recent years has made it clear that the rough-and-tumble nature of football – which includes regular blows to the head week in and week out – can be hard on the buttery-soft human brain. But according to psychiatrists and brain health experts, brain injuries are much more serious than most people realize.

Hit after hit

Studies involving 45 retired professional football players – including former NFL defensive backs and offensive linemen between the ages of 26 and 82 – evaluated the men's brains while they performed cognitive tasks that required attention and focus. Their cognitive scores and SPECT brain scans showed clear signs of trouble. When compared to non-players, their scores were lower and their brains showed two areas that weren't getting enough blood: the medial frontal and medial temporal lobes.

The medial frontal lobe is associated with judgment, impulse control, forethought and learning from mistakes. The temporal lobes are involved with learning, memory, mood stability and temper control. Researchers think reduced blood flow could predict dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Beyond the gridiron

These early findings shed light on the effects of football, a much-loved sport in the U.S. But doctors and researchers are also looking at the bigger picture. They want average Americans to think about all the ways we put our brains at risk as well. More obvious high-risk activities include bicycling, hockey, skiing and mixed martial arts. But don't forget about soccer, horseback riding and cheerleading, too.

What you can do

Here are some common-sense ways to protect your brain:

  • Believe in helmets. Understanding how helmets make a difference can help you and your family be more diligent about wearing one.
  • Get help right away. Learn the basic signs of a concussion, and head to the ER immediately if you spot any of them.
  • Trust your gut. Athletes (especially teens) tend to downplay their injuries. If a head injury seems serious, play it safe by going to the emergency room.
  • Let your brain rest – physically and mentally. People with head injuries should rest until they're symptom-free for at least two weeks. You may want to get back to work, or your kid may be eager to get back on the field, but talk to your doctor first.

Remember this: when it comes to your brain, it's much better to be safe than sorry.

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