Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about the potential adverse side effects of heading the ball in soccer. With the worry of concussions and other brain injuries, heading has become negatively viewed in the sport. Some people have even debated banning the act altogether. A new study published this past week may have you agree.
Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that regularly heading the ball has a more significant effect on daily cognitive function than does the occasional accidental head impact. More than 300 amateur soccer players in New York City, between the ages of 18 and 55, were examined. Participants filled out questionnaires for a two-week period in which they detailed how many head injuries they suffered and how frequently they headed the ball. As it turned out, in those two weeks, players headed the ball around 45 times. At least 1/3 of these players additionally had an accidental head injury, such as banging heads with another player or hitting their head on the ground after a fall.
The participants then completed tests of verbal learning, verbal memory, psychomotor speed (reaction time), attention and working memory. Players who regularly headed the ball performed the worst on the attention and psychomotor speed tasks. Study author Dr. Michael Lipton, a professor of radiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College, found no connection between accidental head impacts and mental performance. Though the brain function of the players who regularly headed the ball showed only temporary subtle changes, there is worry about long-term damage.
The problem with avid headballers is that they are repeating this act over and over again, and it’s these reoccurring minor impacts that are most responsible for future cognitive impairments. Lipton and his colleagues are now wondering how much is too much. With strong concern that heading causes microstructural changes in the brain, the researchers of this study want to next find out how much heading it takes to produce permanent damage. To do this, they need to conduct a longer follow-up study with more soccer players. In the meantime, Lipton highly encourages players to reduce the amount they head the ball in games and practices.