UK study links heading to long term brain damage in pro footballers

February 15 – Too much heading of the ball in a professional career may be linked to long-term brain damage, according to the results of a scientific study published Wednesday.

The research, the first of its kind, follows anecdotal reports that prolonged heading could be prone to developing dementia later in life.

Researchers from University College London and Cardiff University examined the brains of a number of former 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 went on to develop dementia in their 60s.

While performing post mortem examinations, scientists found signs of brain injury – called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – in four of the cases, suggesting that some professionals might risk the same long-term cognitive problems suffered by boxers and American football players.

The study, published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, followed 14 retired players with dementia and secured next-of-kin permission for post mortem examinations for six of them.

Prof Huw Morris, of University College London, told the BBC: “When we examined their brains at autopsy we saw the sorts of changes that are seen in ex-boxers, the changes that are often associated with repeated brain injury which are known as CTE.

“So really for the first time in a series of players we have shown that there is evidence that head injury has occurred earlier in their life which presumably has some impact on them developing dementia.”

“We’ve demonstrated that the same type of pathology that occurs in ex-boxers can also occur in some ex-footballers who have dementia, but I’d emphasise this is a very small number of players.”

“The average playing career of these players was 26 years, which is thousands of hours of game playing, thousands of hours of practice and thousands of headers … I think the risk is extremely low from playing recreational football.”

The report’s authors make it clear, however, they were not analysing the risks of heading by children. And they acknowledged the research cannot definitively prove a link between football and dementia and are calling for larger studies to look at footballers’ long-term brain health.

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