Soccer Linked to Brain Damage
Soccer players are often praised and admired for their skillful control of the ball with headers, but recent research has shown that soccer players who frequently head the ball may run a high risk of developing brain damage.
The study, carried out by Dr. Michael Lipton of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found that soccer players who headed a ball on average of 1,000 to 1,500 times in a year were more likely to display damage in certain areas of the brain, including those areas responsible for memory, attention and organizing.
Soccer players who headed the ball less than 1,000 times a year did not display the same brain changes. These findings were reported at the 2011 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
While 1,000 times a year may sound like a lot, researchers say that this comes down to just a few times a day. For those who play soccer on a regular basis, reaching this number is easily done.
The brain injuries in soccer players appear to build up over a period of time, rather than immediately after one header. Dr. Lipton has commented that while he does not support the idea of banning heading from soccer, he is interested to find out if a safe threshold can be defined for the amount of times a player can head the ball.
During the study, the researchers used brain scans to analyse the effects of headers on 38 amateur soccer players. With the help of a brain scan, the players’ brain tissue was examined.
The researchers found that players who headed the ball around 1,320 times a year were more likely to show brain damage than those who headed the ball fewer times. Dr. Lipton reported that the brain damage displayed by these players appeared similar to concussions or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
Soccer or football is by far the world’s most popular sport, being played by 250 million people in over 200 countries worldwide. Determining how often a player can head a ball before it leads to brain damage is important to ensure the long-term safety of both professional and amateur players.
Sports injuries, in particular brain injuries are beginning to receive more coverage these days, as many sports organizations attempt to minimize the risks involved in certain sports. During an amateur soccer game, research has shown that balls can travel as fast as 55 kilometers, and during a professional game that speed could be more than twice as much.
The English soccer player Jeff Astle is thought to have been killed by excessive heading. The 59-year-old passed away in 2002 after suffering from cognitive problems following his career as a striker with West Bromwich Albion and the English national team.
Coroner Andrew Haigh ruled that Astle’s death was the result of a degenerative brain disease caused by frequent heading of the heavy leather balls that were used during that time. While soccer balls today are generally thought to be safer, there is still some speculation about whether or not this is true.
Research carried out at the University of Glasgow showed that heavier leather soccer balls and modern-day ones have the same impact on a player’s head. The study used cameras to capture images of the two balls as they hit a wall at a high speed.
Both balls collapsed to nearly half their diameter on impact with the wall. According to this study, the modern soccer ball is not actually safer than the old-style leather ball, as it has the same amount of force when it hits a players head at 100 kilometers an hour.
Studies on the subject are not conclusive, however, and researchers agree that further research will be necessary to determine whether or not the brain damage is actually caused by heading the ball.
Dr. Andrew Rutherford, researcher at Keele University, says the evidence up till now has not been convincing enough. He is of the opinion that the brain damage found in frequent soccer players may be caused by the impact of the players’ heads clashing when they jump up to get the ball, rather than the impact with the ball itself.