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Heading Soccer Balls Tied to Damaging Brain Changes

Doing it a lot may increase risk of memory problems in adult soccer players, study says


The researchers found that there appears to be a threshold for harm from heading. Below that threshold, there wasn't as much risk, but there was significantly more risk of brain changes above it. In this study, the threshold was between 885 and 1,550 headers a year for brain changes, and higher than 1,800 headings a year for changes in memory scores.

Lipton said these findings were independent of past concussions.

"People can take some degree of trauma. Not everyone who bumps their head on a cabinet will have concussion symptoms. The question is how much does it take to have a lasting injury? And, that remains an open question, especially in children," said Lipton.

Because kids' brains are developing, they might be more susceptible to injuries, noted Lipton. But, on the other hand, he pointed out, children's brains are also quite adaptable and can recover more easily from conditions such as stroke than adult brains can.

One expert noted that the study showed that even minor insults to the brain can have lasting effects.

"This study shows that even if you don't have a concussion or a noticeable injury, if you look close enough at the brain, you can see changes. The evidence from these adults seems reasonably compelling that these minor heading events accumulate over time," said Dr. Michael Bell, director of pediatric neurocritical care at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

For parents who may be wondering if they should keep their kids from heading soccer balls, Lipton said the evidence isn't clear-cut enough yet to make a firm recommendation one way or the other.

"Parents have to weigh the evidence and make their own decisions. Our study provides very preliminary evidence that lines up with many of the concerns that parents have, but that needs to be balanced against the fact that this isn't yet a closed book," Lipton said.

Bell agreed, and added a counterpoint.

"The data is evolving, and any sort of mild traumatic brain injury may have consequences we don't understand yet," Bell said, adding that parents also have to remember that they don't want to discourage their children from being physically active, because a sedentary lifestyle has other health risks.


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