Heading footballs may cause brain injuries, new research suggests.
Players who deliberately score goals without their feet have lower reaction times and attention spans, a study found today.
Lead author Dr Michael Lipton, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, said: ‘Heading is a potential cause of brain injury and since it’s under control of the player, its consequences can be prevented.’
Previous research suggests unintentional head impacts between players are a major cause of concussion among athletes, however, the current study found such injuries do not affect their cognitive function.
This comes 16 years after the death of England striker Jeff Astle, whose inquest suggested he developed dementia as a direct result of heading heavy leather footballs.
Nobby Stiles, who played for England during its World Cup win in 1966 and suffers from Alzheimer’s, has previously criticised the Football Association for failing to properly investigate a link between the sport and degenerative brain disease.
Heading footballs may cause brain injuries, new research suggests (stock)
‘Heading alters cognitive function’
Dr Lipton said: ‘Heading appears to alter cognitive function, at least temporarily’.
Results further suggest heading may affect footballers’ memories. Yet, overall, the cognitive function of players does not appear to be overly affected.
Dr Lipton added, however: ‘We’re concerned that subtle, even transient reductions in neuropsychological function from heading could translate to microstructural changes in the brain that then lead to persistently impaired function.
‘We need a much longer-term follow-up study of more soccer players to fully address this question.’
How the research was carried out
The researchers analysed 308 amateur football players based in New York City.
The players, who were between 18 and 55 years old, filled out questionnaires that asked if they had played the sport in the past two weeks, as well as if they had headed any balls or suffered unintentional head impacts.
Tests were carried out to determine the players’ memories, attention spans and reaction times.
The findings were published in the Frontiers of Neurology.
Heading a football raises the risk of dementia
This comes after research released in February 2017 suggested footballers could be at risk of dementia due to suffering repeated minor injuries when they head a ball.
Out of a study of 14 retired footballers, four had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is known to cause dementia, while six had Alzheimer’s.
Footballers may be far less likely to suffer concussions than boxers, however, experts claim there is ‘evidence accumulating’ that repeated mild head traumas can lead to brain damage that can cause or worsen dementia.
Lead author Dr Helen Ling, from University College London, said: ‘Our findings of CTE in retired footballers suggest a potential link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain pathologies in later life.
‘These players had the same pathology as boxers.’
A study by the University of Stirling, published in 2016, found footballers do up to 67 per cent worse in memory tests after routine heading practices, although they recover within 24 hours.
Dr Tom Crisp, a consultant in sport and exercise medicine at the London Independent Hospital, has previously said a header is like a ‘punch to the head’.
ENGLAND STRIKER JEFF ASTLE DIED OF BRAIN DISEASE
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle (right) died in 2002.
He was only 59 but doctors said he had the brain of a 90-year-old after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals with a history of head injuries, often as a result of multiple concussions.
An inquest ruled Astle died from dementia caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.
Astle once commented that heading a football was like heading ‘a bag of bricks’.
His family set up the Jeff Astle Foundation in 2015 in order to raise awareness of brain injury in sport.
Jeff Astle challenging the Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Bonetti in 1969
Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham Hotspur during their double winning season of 1961, died aged 67 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in 1993.
His death has also been linked to heading the heavy, leather balls of the 1940s and 50s, along with fellow Tottenham players Dave Mackay, Peter Baker and Ron Henry.
Legends from England’s World Cup squad of 1966 have also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, including Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson.