Good parent that you are, you steered your child toward playing soccer instead of a high physical contact game such as football or hockey. Good way to keep him (or her) safe and injury-free, right? Maybe not.
A recent study has found that players who often head a soccer ball are at risk for developing a brain injury.1 For kids on a team who practice and play several times a week, heading the ball is part of their training, and they may do quite a bit of it.
The research, which took place at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York, was based on brain scans of 32 participants who are regular soccer players, but not professionals. Using diffusion tensor imaging, the scientists were able to obtain a good view of both brain and nerve tissue. The instances of damage to the brain that turned up on the scans were much like those exhibited by patients diagnosed with a concussion.
The subjects reported how frequently they tend to head the ball when either practicing or playing a game. Since only the goalie can use his or her hands in soccer, players are encouraged to use their heads to control the ball when it is airborne. The researchers found that damage to the brain only seemed to show up in those who were heading the ball more than 1,000 times per year. While that may sound like an excessive amount of times to be smashing your head with a ball, it is actually not all that much heading for a player on a year-round team. Competitive teams play well beyond the fall season -- often all year long -- and this level of play can start for kids as young as nine years old. And even for those kids who don't play year round, a simple "heading drill" can result in dozens of high risk contacts in as little as five minutes.
Those volunteers who headed the ball often had scans displaying trauma to five areas of the brain. It affected both the front and the back portions of the brain, doing damage to regions that control a wide variety of functions such as memory, attention, and higher-order visual processing. When the scans were followed up by cognitive testing on the participants, those with signs of brain injury did noticeably worse. Their verbal memory scores and reaction times were lower than those who did not frequently head the ball.
The problem doesn't seem to stem from any one individual instance of impact between the head and the ball. Rather, it may have a cumulative effect on the nerve fibers of the brain that may ultimately damage and kill off brain cells. And in some cases, it may be years after playing soccer regularly for the damage to become apparent. Jeff Astle was a professional soccer player in England who died in 2002 at the age of 59. It wasn't until after his professional career ended that he developed cognitive difficulties and his death was determined to be caused by a degenerative brain disease brought on by heading soccer balls.2 In all fairness, the soccer balls used today are much lighter than those used when Astle was playing, but they can still pack a wallop when moving at fast speeds during a game.
When you consider these findings in combination with the strong links that have been suggested between serious head injury and future risk of Alzheimer's, the immediate impulse might be to yank your children off the soccer pitch forever. But before you go to any extreme measures, think about how they play. If their games and practices are recreational in nature, then the benefits to their physical fitness surely outweigh any risks. On the other hand, if they play frequently and competitively, maybe it's time to either take it down a notch or at least talk to them about not heading the ball on a regular basis. Sharing this information with the team's coach couldn't hurt either; maybe some changes could be made to the way they approach the game. That would truly be an example of using your head in a good way!
1 Roberts, Michelle. "Footballers: Too many headers 'can damage the brain'." BBC News. 29 November 2011. BBC. (Accessed 24 January 2012.) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15917035>.
2 "Wife of Jeff Astle frustrated with FA over death." 18 January 2012. BBC News. (Accessed 24 Jan 2012.) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-16610029>