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Kids' Concussions May Impair Brain Function Years Later

We already know a concussion can be serious, but now new research suggests the effects can be very long term in nature, especially for younger kids.

boy heading soccer ball Michael Krinke/Getty Images
Unbelievably, more than a million brain injuries are treated each year in the U.S. In kids, many of these injuries, including pediatric concussions, are sustained on the playing field, despite the fact that organized sports are implementing more stringent safety measures to prevent head injuries.

Now alarming new research out of the University of Illinois, and published in the journal International Journal of Psychophysiology, finds pre-adolescents who sustain sports-related concussions may have impaired brain function for up to two years after the injury.

To reach their conclusions, researchers looked at 30 children between the ages of 8 and 10 who are involved in athletic activities. Half of the participants sustained a concussion two years ago, while the other half had no prior history of concussion. All participants' brain signals were analyzed while they performed cognitive tests pertaining to memory, attention, and inhibition.

Kids who had sustained a head injury performed worse on all tests. Perhaps the most upsetting data to come out of the study is that the earlier in life a child had a concussion, the worse their impairment, presumably because the brain is still developing.

Researchers caution that the vocational and academic effects of an early brain injury could last into adulthood.

Charles Hillman, co-author of the study, explains, "These data are an important first step toward understanding sustained changes in brain function and cognition that occur following childhood concussion. Our study suggests the need to find ways to improve cognitive and brain health following a head injury, in an effort to improve lifelong brain health and effective functioning."

The takeaway: Clearly as parents we have to do everything in our power to, with the help of athletic coaches, prevent head injuries. If one occurs, then it's of the utmost importance to seek a doctor's help in treating the injury, and monitoring a child's progress, both immediately and long term.

Incidentally, I suffered a concussion as a young child. All my parents were told was to keep me awake for a while after. Clearly a lot has changed since then.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.