Public concern that high-impact sports such as football, hockey, and boxing leave their participants with traumatic brain injuries has increased dramatically in recent years, but preliminary results from a study conducted at the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health suggest that women in head-butting sports may not be suffering the same cognitive symptoms as their male counterparts.
Researcher Charles Bernick helped enroll boxers and mixed martial arts fighters in a long-term study of their brains and behavior, and admits that preliminary results reveal a slight difference between the male and female participants. After just six years of fighting, researchers found evidence of physical changes in the fighters' brains, and after 12 years, fighters were already starting to show cognitive symptoms the come with repeated blows to the head, like depression, mood shifts, memory loss, and slurred speech. Bernick explained that these findings may help validate our greatest fears — that long-term brain damage occurs even without a single knock-out or concussion.
The more fights they had, the worse their self control the worse they performed on tests with memory. So it suggests there may be damage or structural changes occurring years before somebody becomes symptomatic.
Bernick did admit, however, that though researchers observed the same structural brain changes in female fighters at the six-year mark, at 12 years, those women weren't demonstrating the sorts of severe cognitive symptoms that the male fighters were showing. Since only ten women participated in the study, Bernick is reluctant to read too much significance into the difference, though he did venture that perhaps women weren't suffering the same sorts of symptoms because they weren't being hit on the head quite so hard as men.
News of this study was part of a larger article about the anxieties some female fighters have about the long-term brain damage they might suffer over the course of their careers. Marianne McCune from WYNC spoke to both 30-year-old fighter Heather Hardy and 17-year-old Claressa Shields, who made it onto the first ever U.S. Olympic women's boxing team (this year will be the first time that women's boxing will be featured as an Olympic sport).
Hardy spoke vividly about the dangers of boxing and about being hit so hard that her head would "vibrate" afterward. Shields, on the other hand, is so young (and talented) that she hasn't experienced that sort of bell-ringing yet, and even admitted as much at a WNYC event just before making it onto the Olympic team. Asked if she had ever been knocked out, Shields answered, "No, and I haven't ever thought about the long-term effects."
It's tempting to celebrate the inclusion of women's boxing in this year's games, but, as the evidence pointing to long-term head injury from contact sports piles up, we might want to consider if adding yet another iteration of boxing to the Olympics is really something to applaud.