PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Concussion expert Chris Nowinski said the resurgence of high school football in Rhode Island doesn’t surprise him, but is warning student athletes not to play tackle football before they’re 14 years old.

“I don’t think it’s fair to children to give them a brain disease before they are old enough to understand what that brain disease is,” said Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit researching the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

The CDC and National Institutes of Health have acknowledged the link between repeated hits to the head and CTE.

Target 12 reported on Monday that high school tackle football participation numbers across the state seem to be increasing after years of declines, with five of the largest school districts at or near record highs, including Providence, Pawtucket, East Providence, Cumberland and West Warwick.

Nowinski said football’s reputation might be rebounding because of improved safety measures, especially at practices. Still, he emphasized that while the risk is reduced, it’s not eliminated.

“We’ve now learned that playing a lot of football can destroy your brain,” Nowinski said. “That’s just a fact now.”

He said it’s related to how many years someone played, and how many hits to the head they experienced.

Nowinski told Target 12 the nonprofit isn’t against high school student athletes playing, but said younger kids shouldn’t play tackle football.

“It’s very much like smoking and lung cancer – the more years you do it, the greater the risk,” he said. “Most people developing CTE are getting the majority of their head impacts when they’re children.”

“This is practically a pediatric disease in some ways,” he added. “It should make us think long and hard about how we play sports with kids.”

Nowinski said for children who start before high school, success becomes a curse, because the better you are, the longer you play.

“If you start at 10 and you play through college, you are going to have 12, 13 years of football, and for many people, that’s too much to prevent CTE,” he said. “Most of those people we’ve studied have CTE.”

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CTE can’t yet be diagnosed in living people, and few studies exist on how to treat the clinical symptoms. Currently, it can only be diagnosed posthumously.

And even though the nonprofit isn’t against tackle football in high school, Nowinski said student athletes should be aware of the risk they’re taking on.

“People do need to be aware that CTE is a risk in just a few years of high school football,” he said. “But if parents and children together are willing to accept that risk, then that’s fine.”

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook