Study Shows Heading a Soccer Ball Could Lead to Brain Damage

ICTMN Staff
12/1/11

Soccer is a sport that many educators in Indian Country, including influential and hugely important foundations like Notah Begay's NB3 Foundation, have turned to the sport as a great way to keep kids healthy.  Soccer's a strenuous sport, demanding a good level of fitness, and is a great tool to help American Indian youth stay healthy and avoid diabetes and obesity.

A new study by the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City found that players who are considered "high frequency headers," with more 1,000 or more a year, showed abnormalities similar to traumatic brain injuries suffered in car accidents.

"This is the first study to look at the effects of heading on the brain using sophisticated diffusion tensor imaging," said Dr. Michael Lipton, lead researcher of the study, said in a statement. "We found the real implication for players isn't from hitting headers once in a while, but repetitively, which can lead to degeneration of brain cells," he said.

This research compared the neurological images of study participants whose average age was 31, a long ways away from the kids in Indian Country who are taking up soccer.  The study could help shape the way the game is taught going forward, however.  Negative changes in the neuro-regions were visible in players who surpassed 1,000 to 1,500 headers a year, not an unthinkable number to committed soccer players.  It will also be important for coaches to make sure kids are heading the ball properly, with their foreheads, with the head, neck and torso set in a solid line without any twisting.  This reduces the force the ball has on the head.

The cognitive consequences of the type of damage Dr. Lipton saw in his study include damage to functions such as memory, thinking, learning, and processing information. What makes this tough is that neuropsychological damage is very difficult for any coach or physician to notice as these issues develop gradually over time.

This is startling news, especially considering soccer appeared to be the safe alternative for parents to have their kids play in the fall over football, which has been steadily rocked in recent years by research showing that the constant, small hits taken in practice and in games can severely damage brain function down the line.

"I'm not advocating banning heading, but there may be a threshold level, which we defined, that indicates a safe range of heading," said Dr. Lipton.

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