LOS ANGELES—Heading the ball is something soccer players do a lot. Players hit the ball with their head to pass or shoot. But a new study by a group of doctors and brain scientists said heading can be risky. Players who head the ball a lot can hurt their brains and have memory problems, the study showed.
Tackle football and hockey get most of the attention when it comes serious brain injuries. Players often get concussions, which are a caused by a jarring hit to the head. But soccer is a very physical sport, too.
Many people cannot believe that slight injuries can be a problem, said Dr. Michael Lipton. He studies brain injuries at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He wrote a report about the study.
Lipton said he has not headed a ball himself since he played soccer as a kid. But he is very interested in how the effects of repeated brain injuries add up. Soccer was a good sport for his research. Players are going to head the ball a lot. Researchers can count how many times they do.
Adult Soccer Players Studied
Lipton and the people he worked with talked to soccer players from New York City. They took pictures of the players' brains. They asked the players how often they played soccer. They wanted to know how often they headed the ball. They also gave the players many tests to measure how different parts of the brain worked.
They split the players into three groups. The groups were divided depending on how much the players headed the ball. Players who headed the ball the most had the lowest scores on memory tests. Their white matter was the least healthy. White matter connects different parts of the brain. People who suffered concussions were found to have unhealthy white matter.
Lipton and his team did not find a connection between heading the ball and players’ attention spans. They did not find a connection with the ability to do difficult thinking tasks, either.
Just heading a ball did not lead to more injury. Players could head the ball 885 to 1,550 times a year without having white matter problems. It took almost 1,800 headers for players to have trouble with their memory. But some people may be hurt more easily than others by heading the ball.
Keeping A "Head Count" Suggested
Lipton said that soccer should start keeping a “head count.” Teams would keep count of the number of times a player heads the ball. The "head count" would be like the “pitch count” in baseball. Teams keep a count to make sure pitchers do not throw too many pitches in one game.
Practice is also important to think about, Lipton said. There are usually more headers in practice than in games. Of course, they come at slower speeds.
So should famous soccer player David Beckham have been worn a helmet? Not so fast, Lipton said.
Scientists cannot say for sure if heading the ball a lot injures your brain or gives you memory problems, he said. The study was based on a small number of players. Most were men. The time period of the study was short.
In the meantime, don't worry about heading the ball. You can always try out for goal.