Footballers use their heads as an indispensable weapon during games of football. Their heads help them win headers, protect the ball from opponents, send long passes and sprint past rivals. But playing association football may increase risk for brain damage; but the benefits far outweigh this danger.
New research conducted in Norway has discovered that repeated headers during association football may alter blood patterns in the brain, potentially altering communication pathways between muscles and mind. Researchers studied 89 professional footballers’ blood samples after heading 20 balls 20 times with their heads; tests of memory performance and sensitive pathways between brain and muscles were delayed by five milliseconds post experiment; although not permanent; the effect lasted only 24 hours post test but nonetheless remains significant.
This research has led to further examination of the effects of heading in football. As reported by The Guardian, Jeff Astle’s early onset dementia at age 59 sparked renewed inquiries into its effect on long term brain health. An experimental study performed by this same publication also indicated that frequent headers could experience more severe concussion injuries as well as higher chances of subconcussive impacts that cause cognitive impairments.
Researchers conducted four separate studies that explored how headers affect cognitive functioning during association football matches. Each experiment employed different methods to measure how quickly brain and muscle communicate, which indicates how much of an impact heading has on a player.
Studies revealed that, following each header, brain and muscle communication time increased with associated decrease in cognitive test score. Researchers caution that their results cannot be applied across an entire population of footballers as mean number of headers per game and training was relatively low in these studies.
However, this does not make the practice any less valid or the results any less impressive. Researchers suggest in their narrative review that football governing bodies worldwide develop strategies, guidelines and frameworks to reduce the burden of heading for young and beginner players until there is less uncertainty over its short and medium-term impacts on brain health. Be proactive about monitoring heading exposure in games and training, resting players who frequently head in games from heading in training the following week (especially corner kick drills) or restricting how many headers each player can complete during a match (which would apply especially to girls and women, who tend to engage in lower contact sports levels). This would also benefit girls and women.