Could Heading a Football Cause Brain Damage?
Tentative research from UK scientists suggests that blows to the head during a footballer's professional career may be linked to long-term brain damage.
The research, the first of its kind, follows anecdotal reports that players who head heavy footballs may be more prone to developing dementia later in life. The small study is published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica.
Researchers from University College London and Cardiff University examined the brains of five people who had been professional footballers and one who had been a committed amateur throughout his life. They had played football for an average of 26 years and all six went on to develop dementia in their 60s.
While performing post mortem examinations, scientists found signs of brain injury - chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - in four cases. CTE has been linked to memory loss, depression and dementia and has been seen in other contact sports.
However, the science is far from clear-cut. Each brain also showed signs of Alzheimer's disease and some had blood vessel changes that can also lead to dementia.
Researchers speculate that it was a combination of factors that contributed to dementia in these players. But they acknowledge their research cannot definitively prove a link between football and dementia and are calling for larger studies to look at footballers' long-term brain health.
A number of previous cases involving boxers and American footballers have suggested that repetitive blows can cause long-lasting and progressive brain damage. But until now there have only been a few case reports of individual footballers with CTE in the UK and the extent of the issue is still unknown.
The Football Association welcomed the study and said research was particularly needed to find out whether degenerative brain disease is more common in ex-footballers.
In a paper published last year by the journal EBioMedicine, researchers from the University of Stirling found that heading a football 20 times in a short period of time impaired memory function by between 41% and 67%, with the effects wearing off within 24 hours. The study was based on 19 footballers all aged in their early to mid-20s.