Obama: Too little info about youth concussions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama called Thursday for more robust research into youth concussions, saying there remains deep uncertainty over both the scope of the troubling issue and the long-term impacts on young people.

“We want our kids participating in sports,” Obama said as he opened a daylong summit on concussions at the White House. “As parents though, we want to keep them safe and that means we have to have better information.”

The summit signaled an effort by Obama to use the power of the presidency to elevate a national conversation over youth concussions. The White House brought together representatives of professional sports leagues, coaches, parents, young athletes, medical professionals and others for the event.

Obama, an avid sports fan and father of two daughters involved in athletics, highlighted millions of dollars in pledges and other support from the National Football League, the National Institutes of Health and others to conduct research that could begin to provide answers and improve safety.

Among the financial commitments is a $30 million joint research effort by the NCAA and Defense Department and an NFL commitment of $25 million over the next three years to promote youth sports safety.

The president said additional research needs to also be combined with a broader recognition of the need to take the matter seriously.

“We have to change a culture that says, ‘suck it up,’ ” he said.

Micky Collins, clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, and assistant research director Anthony Kontos were among the few academics, researchers and clinicians who took part in the summit.

“It was an honor for the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program to be invited to the White House for the summit,” Dr. Collins said. “There was some encouraging discussion about the subject — one that is very familiar to us in our program, and to people in Pittsburgh, around Western Pennsylvania and across sports America. The focus was on sports being a good thing, let’s continue to make progress in treating and studying concussions in addition to working to improve safety in all sports. The events went very well. It was a good day.”

The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC are in the midst of $6 million in research grants — from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and others — to continue their 15-plus-years emphasis on the study of concussions. Pitt and UPMC are among the nation’s leaders in published concussion research with more than 175 papers overall and roughly 25 annually over the past few years. The concussion clinic sees as many as 20,000 patient visits per year, including people from more than 20 states.

Obama had waded into the debate over concussions before, saying that if he had sons, he would “have to think long and hard” about whether he would allow them to play football. Obama sought to broaden the discussion over head injuries, saying young people who play soccer, lacrosse, hockey and other sports also are at risk.

Barack Obama, Victoria Bellucci

President Barack Obama applauds Victoria Bellucci, a 2014 graduate of Huntingtown High School in Huntingtown, Md., as she introduces Obama to speak at the White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit, Thursday, May 29, 2104, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Bellucci played four years of women’s varsity soccer where she was a team captain and an All-State selection. By the time her high school and club soccer careers ended in 2013, Bellucci had suffered five concussions. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that can be caused by a blow to the head, or a blow to the body powerful enough to jostle the brain around inside the skull. Nearly 250,000 kids and young adults visit hospital emergency rooms each year with brain injuries caused by sports or other recreational activity, the White House said.

The NFL recently agreed to pay $765 million to settle concussion claims from thousands of former players whose complaints range from headaches to Alzheimer’s disease. That settlement is still awaiting a judge’s approval, while a group of former professional hockey players has filed a class-action lawsuit of their own against the National Hockey League for head injuries sustained on the ice.

The White House summit was also looking at concussions and other brain injuries suffered by service members. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, participated in the event, including a panel discussion with doctors and athletes.

An afternoon sports clinic on the South Lawn with Obama and kids from local YMCA programs was canceled because of rain.

Other research efforts on concussions and head injuries include:

— An NIH project looking at the chronic effects of repetitive concussions. The work is supported by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health through an initial investment of $16 million from the NFL.

—UCLA will use $10 million from New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch to launch a program to study sports concussion prevention, outreach, research and treatment for athletes of all ages, but especially youth. The money will also support planning for a national system to determine the incidence of youth sports concussions.

— The Institute of Medicine, which advises the government, called for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish and oversee such a system to begin to help provide answers to questions about the risks of youth sports, such as how often the youngest athletes suffer concussions and which sports have the highest rates.

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Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dsupervilleap

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