Soccer heading can lead to brain damage and mid-life dementia — here’s what should be done

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. In the United States, 30% of households have a member playing the game, and 3 million American children play in youth soccer leagues.

Among 12 to 17 year adolescents, MLS is more popular than MLB. Children begin playing in pre-school, and their play may extend into college or beyond.

Many parents encourage their children to play soccer, since it is considered a non-contact sport andseemssafe. But now, the latest research from neuropathologists at the University College London casts doubt on that assumption. Their work offers compelling evidence that soccer heading produces progressive brain damage and leads to heartbreaking dementia later in life.

Here’s the story:


caption
A retired NFL player’s PET scan. The yellow and red blotches indicate tau deposition.
source
Translational Psychiatry

The researchers studied 14 retired soccer players who died having been diagnosed with dementia, and 12 out of 14 of them had advanced dementia. Their neurological symptoms began in midlife, only 15-20 years following their retirement from play.

The researchers obtained permission to study the brains of six players. Under the microscope, all six brains showed evidence of the abnormal tau protein accumulation typical of Alzheimer’s dementia, and four of the six brains revealed the classic damage associated with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).


caption
Brain tissue images, with tau protein in brown. The brain on the left is from a normal subject, the brain in the middle is from a former football player, and the brain on the right is from a former boxer.
source
Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

CTE is a progressive neurologic disease with very characteristic tissue changes in the brain. Initially recognized in boxers and found to be epidemic in football players, it has now been identified in those playing rugby, ice hockey, and wrestling. CTE has been diagnosed in 90 of 96 former NFL players, and many of them died in mid-life as the result of violent suicides. The disease may occur at a young age and progress rapidly, as a 17-year-old high school footballer died with evidence of CTE.


Some years ago, isolated cases of CTE were found in soccer players. This latest study conclusively confirms the association. Soccer-associated head trauma has been thought to be milder than that found in football or boxing as soccer players suffer fewer frank concussions or subconcussive events.


caption
Fans pause for a moment for Junior Seau, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2012. Seau’s brain later showed signs of CTE.
source
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Heading produces a so-called coup-contracoup head injury. A one-pound soccer ball may strike a player’s head at a speed as high as 80 miles per hour, generating a force as high as 100 to 150 times the force of gravity.

As the ball strikes the head – even if it is protected by a helmet – its kinetic energy is transmitted to the brain floating within the skull cavity, causing it to bounce back against the skull’s back wall, sustaining a bruise.

As the brain continues to bounce around within the skull, it sustains more and more bruises. As these bruises accumulate, the brain begins to develop chronic changes, including the accumulation of the tau protein also seen in Alzheimer’s victims and overall shrinkage. Its owner begins to exhibit changes of mental illness including memory loss, angry temperament, and violent behavior.


source
Flickr/MSC U15 Green

Amateur soccer players, including children, may experience as many as 500 headers during a year of play. The American Youth Soccer Organization announced new heading rules in March, 2016. It now wisely bans the practice of heading for all players under the age of 11-12 years instead of 10 years. It limits heading for 12- to 13-year-olds to a maximum of 30 minutes a week with no more than 15-20 headers.


The strategy

Given the devastating brain damage that is likely to occur with soccer heading, I recommend that heading be banned from all youth soccer, if not from all soccer.

Soccer, called “football” in other parts of the world, is first and foremost a game of ball manipulation with players’ feet. Heading is chiefly used to redirect the ball at the goals but is also used to ground airborne balls in other parts of the field. Other, less vulnerable parts of the body could be used to achieve the same result. The arms or the shoulders would be better choices than the head of a child, adolescent, or even a young adult.


caption
Will Smith stars in “Concussion,” a dramatic thriller based on the true story of American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who made the first discovery of CTE in a pro football player and fought for the truth to be known.
source
Columbia Pictures

Parents who plan to permit their children to play football, soccer, or hockey or to box or wrestle should view the motion picture “Concussion.” This excellent docudrama recounts how Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy was discovered to cause the mental deterioration of so many professional football players. It accurately details the risks your child faces.


source
Getty Images/Kevin Frayer

Remember that helmets will not prevent the coup-contracoup injuries that slowly but progressively damage a player’s brain and sap the intellectual power, mental stability, and personal happiness that children and young adults should enjoy later in life. We as parents must prevent this from occurring by telling our kids of all ages and their coaches that soccer heading is unacceptable and the damage it will cause completely avoidable.


For more on this story, check out <a href=”http://drhowardsmith.libsyn.com/soccer-heading-leads-to-later-dementia”target=”_blank”>this podcast episode</a> or watch the video below.