According to research presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, frequent heading of a football can cause measurable decline in brain structure and function.
To analyse the adverse effects of heading, the researchers recruited 148 amateur footballers, average age 27. Of this, 26 per cent were women.
Their two-year heading exposure was ranked as low, moderate or high. The participants were assessed on verbal learning and memory, and underwent a head scan known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) at the time of enrolment and two years later.
Compared with baseline test results, those in the high-heading group (more than 1,500 headers in two years) showed significant changes in brain microstructure; it was similar to findings seen in mild traumatic brain injuries. They also showed a decline in verbal learning performance on a memory test.
The researchers reported the findings of another study that used DTI to examine the link between repetitive head impacts from football heading and verbal learning performance.
That study included 353 amateur players, aged 18 to 53, with 27 per cent of them women. It used DTI to examine the interface between the brain’s white and grey matter closer to the skull.
The scan showed that the normally sharp grey matter-white matter interface was blunted with repetitive head impacts.
The integrity of the grey-white matter interface may play a role in the link between repetitive head impacts and decline in cognitive performance, the study author explained.
The potential of football heading to cause long-term adverse brain effects is very concerning. “A large part of this concern relates to the potential for changes in young adulthood to confer risk for neurodegeneration and dementia later in life,” the study author said.