Footballers suffer higher risk of neurodegeneration - study

Footballers who frequently head the ball may suffer from an increased risk of neurodegeneration, according to new research.

The study by Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Keele explored the effects of prolonged ball-to-head impacts on cognitive impairment. The researchers obtained retrospective data from 60 retired footballers on how many headers they estimated taking during match and training, across their careers.

The study found that about 100,000 career headers in retired professional footballers were linked to about three fewer points on a test that measures cognition. A difference of three points on the test, called Test Your Memory, may cause the overall score to fall below the threshold for normal cognition.

Cognition refers to the mental process of acquiring and understanding information through our senses.

Heading is key?

A previous study, published in 2019, had reported that former footballers had three times as much risk to develop dementia as the general population, but that study did not address directly the reasons why this may be the case. This new study sheds new light on the possible causes, and points the finger at heading the ball.  

Cognitive impairment is unlikely to appear in younger footballers, so the researchers tested retired players, who averaged over 65 years of age. Testing older players, however, makes it more difficult to gather objective estimates of heading rates.

Dr Davide Bruno, a reader in the School of Psychology, said: “To our knowledge, this is the first study to provide direct evidence supporting a link between heading the ball and cognitive impairment in retired professional football players. While more research is certainly needed, our study does appear to suggest that massive volumes of headers might be a contributing factor for dementia.”

The study was funded by the Univers Foundation.

The research ‘Cognitive ability in former professional football (soccer) players is associated with estimated heading frequency’ is published in the Journal of Neuropsychology.


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