Adult female soccer players who head the ball show as much as five times more signs of neurological damage than do male players who head the ball a similar number of times, says a new study, suggesting that the potential risk to younger, more fragile players is greater than originally thought.
In a three-year study conducted by scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the brains of 98 players from college and amateur ranks were studied. While males and females headed the ball roughly the same number of times over the course of the year (487 and 469 respectively), MRI scans of the women’s brains showed higher numbers of spots, suggesting the possibility of more damage to brain tissue.
The new study is in line with previous research showing that girls (and boys) who headed a ball even once in a soccer game suffered decreased cognitive capabilities immediately after the contest compared to the same tests taken beforehand.
And while it isn’t clear why girls suffer higher rates of brain injury, researchers believe it may have to do with anatomical differences in heads and necks in much the same way that girls’ bodies are more prone to ACL and other knee injuries.
Given the now-established connection between repeated head impacts and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CET) found in tackle football players, the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2016 banned heading in kids 10 and under, and instituted rules limiting it in kids 11 to 13. But more than a few experts think that’s not going far enough, particularly for still-developing brains.
Former pros like Taylor Twellman, whose own career was abruptly ended by concussions, argues that ‘purists’ are clinging to a tradition started 150 years ago – when little if anything was understood about the damage inflicted by headers (the impact can almost reach the level of helmet-to-helmet collisions in football). Twellman believes that if soccer was being created today, “heading would be outlawed until pretty much the professional level.”
In the meantime, female pros including Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Cindy Parlow Cone, have made noise lobbying for header bans before the age of 14, arguing that kids’ heads, necks, and brains are too underdeveloped for collisions with the ball.
All of which is good news to Danielle Raines MD, a neuropsychologist at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. “Definitely any restriction is an improvement, I think, especially in early childhood and school-age children,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “Any strike to the head creates an acceleration-deceleration movement of the brain — it’s going to cause the brain to move.”
The advice from most experts? Do not allow your kids to head a soccer ball until puberty, when musculature in the neck is sufficient to protect the head.