A 2021 Brain Imaging and Behavior study looked at headings in more detail. It found that athletes with little or no exposure to repetitive headers exhibited better cognitive function than non-athletes.
That study also found that the cognitive function of soccer players with the highest exposure to repetitive head impacts did not differ significantly from healthy, non-athletes – findings that factors like concussion history or demographics could not explain. Researchers said repeated “sub-concussive” hits might lessen the benefits of athletic conditioning for brain health.
Dr. Michael Lipton, professor of radiology and psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of MRI services at Montefiore Health System in New York, was the senior author of both studies. A neuroradiologist and neuroscientist, Lipton and other Einstein researchers recently received a five-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to follow up on the 2021 research, assessing trade-offs between soccer’s aerobic benefits to the brain and the adverse effects from heading.
Lipton said the work could create evidence-based guidelines to help parents and their children make informed decisions about playing soccer. “We need to understand better both the risks and benefits for people to make an informed decision about what to do,” Lipton said.
U.S. Soccer banned heading for players ages ten and younger in 2015. Headers for 11- and 12-year-old players are allowed in games, but limited in practices.
If parents ask for advice, Danan said his first step is to educate families about potential risks of injury to the head and other musculoskeletal injuries. It’s essential for athletic trainers to be educated and aware of concussion symptoms, and for coaches and players to be on the lookout for such signs among players.
“To the general population, I would never try to deter someone from playing soccer if they have no medical history of particular risk or concern,” said Danan, whose 7-year-old daughter recently started playing.
“For those who want to engage in a sport like soccer, I think there is way more benefit to taking part than risks.”
American Heart Association News