The level of high school sports participation is at an all-time high.1 Students who play competitive sports enjoy physical and mental benefits. It reduces the rate of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. It also improves cardiovascular and pulmonary function and increases the potential that young people will go on to stay physically active throughout their life.2
Researchers also discovered that athletes who regularly play sports are less likely to use drugs and less likely to smoke cigarettes. Female athletes are 80% less likely to become pregnant during high school than their peers who don’t participate in sports. Students playing sports perform better in the classroom with higher grade point averages, better attendance and a greater chance of going to college.
In one survey of 75 Fortune 500 companies, researchers found that 95% of the vice presidents played high school sports. One of the risks of playing full contact sports, though, is a head injury, which experts estimate occurs 300,000 times annually during participation in high school and intercollegiate sports.3
Playing Sports Develops Mental Fitness and Sound Response
Many of the benefits of playing sports are related to mental fitness or mental flexibility. Neurobiologists from Northwestern University focus on this in their studies of the brain’s response to sound.4 By hooking a series of electrodes to the scalp they can record the electrical response to sound and play it through a speaker.
Lead researcher Nina Kraus commented that this methodology gives insight into the health of the nervous system. Her team has found that those who are exposed to language and musical stimulation while growing up are less likely to have neural static or the generation of excess electrical activity.
On the other hand, growing up in a musically or linguistically limited environment, the brain may be excessively noisy, which interferes with your ability to understand auditory information. Their results suggest that playing sports gives an athlete’s brain greater ability to turn down background noise.5 Kraus explained:6
“The brain is hungry for information and it actually creates electrical activity when it doesn’t get enough. But it creates random and staticky activity, which in the end is more of a problem because it gets in the way of making sense of sound.”
The researchers used a cross-sectional study design involving 988 student athletes. They evaluated the athletes’ auditory processing by measuring the frequency-following response (FFR) using electrodes applied to the scalp.
The FFR was used as it is sensitive to experience, and researchers have found that injury reduces the amplitude. They measured the FFR amplitude of the brain’s response, of the background noise and the ratio between these measures, and found athletes had a larger response than nonathletes, and concluded:7
“These findings suggest that playing sports increases the gain of an auditory signal by turning down the background noise. This mode of enhancement may be tied to the overall fitness level of athletes and/or the heightened need of an athlete to engage with and respond to auditory stimuli during competition.”
Sports May Dampen a Noisy Brain
Kraus believes the ability to hear direction during competitive sports helps “tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment.”8 This gives an athlete the advantage of being able to hear their coach yelling from the sidelines above the noise of the spectators by dampening the background noise.
Dr. Richard Isaacson from the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College was intrigued with the results.9 He commented that the researchers demonstrated that athletes enjoyed mental fitness from playing sports, and he expressed an interest in further studies to differentiate between noncontact and contact sports.
The Northwestern researchers theorized that within a healthy nervous system, athletes may be able to handle injury and other health problems better than non-athletes. Kraus explained that making sense of what is heard may be one of the most difficult functions of the brain. The pitch, timing and harmonics of sound must be meshed with understanding the meaning within microseconds of having heard it.
The study is one of the latest in neural processing sponsored by the National Institutes of Health concerning sound in sports concussions. The hope is to use the analyzation of electrical responses following a concussion to determine when an athlete may be ready to return to full contact sports without an increased potential for greater damage to the brain.
Brain Benefits From Language and Music
The researchers also found since head injuries disrupt auditory processes it may be important to understand how this enhancement may reduce potential brain injury. Kraus said playing a musical instrument or learning a new language can help strengthen the brain’s ability to process the signal, yet it does not affect the background noise. In other words:10
“They all hear the ‘DJ’ better but the musicians hear the ‘DJ’ better because they turn up the ‘DJ,’ whereas athletes can hear the ‘DJ’ better because they can tamp down the ‘static.”
The obvious benefit of being bilingual is the ability to communicate with people from around the world. Most people in the U.S. believe learning a second language is valuable, though not necessarily essential. However, as a challenging task for your brain, learning a new language is beneficial.
When evaluated, those who are bilingual have more gray matter involved in cognition and have enhanced cognitive control, greater mental flexibility and a better ability to handle tasks that involve switching and conflict monitoring. In the elderly, this may offer greater advantages since bilingual older adults have a greater cognitive reserve that helps the brain cope with pathology.
In those who currently are experiencing a neurological disorder such as Alzheimer’s, the simple act of listening to music can help them reconnect with the world around them. Some of this benefit appears to be rooted in familiarity. Imaging studies show when you listen to music areas of your brain light up and release dopamine.
Even a Mild Head Injury May Have Lifelong Consequences
Some estimate as many as 90% of the population has experienced some form of head injury. Sports, car accidents and slips and falls can all result in mild to severe traumatic brain injuries. Unfortunately, many of these go undiagnosed and untreated, raising the risk of an accumulation of low-grade concussions over time to neurological dysfunction later in life.
According to one study, a single concussion can raise your risk for Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative and progressive brain condition. The symptoms include tremors, slow movement, rigid limbs and stooped posture. The condition is also associated with depression, dementia, speech impairments and personality changes.
However, having experienced a traumatic brain injury does not automatically equate to the development of Parkinson’s, even though it does increase the risk.
In this study a concussion was defined as a loss of consciousness for up to 30 minutes or an alteration of consciousness or amnesia for up to 24 hours. The study’s author, a staff neurologist at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, noted that the study included all veterans across the U.S. who had been diagnosed at a VA hospital.
The amount of information in it offered the highest level of evidence published thus far and has important implications since many of the brain injuries veterans had suffered occurred during their civilian life and not during active duty.
Symptoms of a head injury are often overlooked as they don’t seem severe enough to warrant medical attention. Common signs of head injury include poor concentration, impaired word recall, mood changes, reduced ability to focus on mental tasks and sleep problems.
Regardless of how severe a head injury appears to be, it is important to carefully attend to any psychological changes that occur in the following weeks. These signs indicate an inflammatory cascade within the nervous system that present as psychological and cognitive downstream effects.
Reduce Your Risk of a Concussion
Although many adults may notice psychological and neurological changes, children usually do not. They require careful monitoring for changes in behavior and function. The accumulation of low-grade concussions over time can accelerate the development of dementia.
If you have a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease and suffer a brain injury your risk increases even further. When this is combined with a poor diet and other factors, such as a lack of exercise, neurological degeneration can accelerate.
There are several strategies you can use to help prevent a concussion or traumatic brain injury. If your child is playing sports, check with the coach, school or league to see if they have a concussion protocol they follow and be sure they understand your concerns if your child should be injured during a game.
In some cases, an emergency room physician may sign off for your child to return to contact sports within a few weeks after the injury. If there are any signs or symptoms of a head injury, it is important to seek a second opinion from a physician who commonly works with people who suffer from brain injury.
• Always wear your seatbelt in a car — Children and adults should be safely buckled in while the car is in motion. Infants should be in a rear-facing seat that has been properly secured in the back seat and not in the front passenger seat.
Never operate a vehicle intoxicated or get in a car being operated by someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This includes prescription drugs that may alter the ability to drive, such as opioid painkillers.
• Wear a helmet — During any activity in which there is a risk of falling and hitting your head, a helmet will reduce the risk of a head injury. This includes riding any type of bike, whether pedal or motorized, any all-terrain vehicle and playing contact sports or baseball. Protect your head during individual activities such as skating or skateboarding, horseback riding, skiing or snowboarding.
• Safeguard homes for the elderly — Reduce the risk of a fall at home by removing any tripping hazards, using non-slip mats in the bathtub and shower, installing grab bars and handrails, improve lighting and maintaining a regular physical activity program to improve strength and balance.
• Safeguard playground areas — Any areas in playgrounds where a child has a higher risk of falling, such as under the bars or around the swings, should have shock-absorbing material such as hardwood mulch or sand.
• Safeguard your home — When there are children in the home use window guards, safety gates and non-skid bath mats in the tub and shower to reduce the risk of a fall. Never leave a child unattended in a high chair.