Repeated headers during a footballer’s professional career have been linked to long-term brain damage. In a study published this week, British scientists investigating the autopsies on six retired professional footballers with dementia found they had a form of the disease associated with blows to the head, perhaps from headers.
They had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease usually associated with boxing.The research follows a study at the University of Stirling, which found ‘significant’ changes in the brain’s short-term memory function from routine heading practice.
Researchers asked 19 footballers to head a ball 20 times as if they were heading from a powerful corner kick. They were tested before and afterward, and scientists found their memory test performance was reduced by between 41 and 67 percent — although it reverted to normal within 24 hours.
The researchers from University College London and Cardiff University, however, said recreational players were unlikely to incur problems.
Although research in this area is not new, the Football Association says it will look at this area more closely. When former England striker Jeff Astle died in 2002 aged 59, having suffered from dementia, a coroner found the condition was caused by repeatedly heading footballs.
Re-examination of his brain tissue in 2014 revealed that he had CTE.Modern footballs are lighter than those Astle headed, yet there may still be cause for concern.
In the study, published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, the report’s authors make it clear they were not analysing the risks of heading by children. But two years ago, the United States Soccer Federation banned children aged ten and under from heading footballs, following a lawsuit.
While more research is needed, children should avoid practising headers many times a day, says John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London.
Heading a ball over a period of years could damage the white matter (nerve fibres that connect various brain regions), leading to loss of functions such as reasoning. So, too, are their neck muscles, which means they have less strength to take the force of the ball’s impact (footballs can travel at 34mph in recreational play and more than double that in professional play Dr. Hardy further explains.
The Researchers said it was a combination of factors that contributed to dementia the player examined during their research. They acknowledge their research cannot definitively prove a link between football and dementia and are calling for larger studies to look at footballers’ long-term brain health.