The Football Association has said that it will be looking into whether footballers who have headed footballs throughout their careers are more likely to develop dementia than people who have not. This follows findings from UK scientists that heading a football over time could result in long term brain injuries.
The study, conducted by The University of Stirling, found a ‘significant’ link between brain injuries and repeated head impacts. A machine was designed, which mimics the effect of heading a football, and this was used to see how brain function is changed by a session of heading practice. Neuroscientist Dr. Magdalena Ietswaart said, "We found that there was increased inhibition in the brain, immediately after heading a ball and that performance in memory tests was reduced significantly". These initial tests found that the effects of a single heading session returned to normal within a day. She further went on to say that, "With large numbers of people participating in sport, it is important that they know what is happening inside the brain and the lasting effect this may have".
While we can't be sure yet what the long term impact on brain health is, we have some clues. Researchers at University College London have examined the brains of five former professional footballers who all went on to contract dementia in their sixties. In 4 of the 5 cases there were signs of brain injury, which could have been caused by heading what were significantly heavier footballs decades ago. Professor Huw Morris of UCL has tentatively said, "For the first time in a series of players… there is evidence that head injury has occurred earlier in their life which presumably has some impact on them developing dementia".
It's early days and more work needs to be done; however, with the sheer numbers that participate regularly in the game of football, the research could be highly significant and could obviously benefit many people. Dr Angus Hunter from the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport at the University of Stirling says, "We need to safeguard the long term health of football players at all levels, as well as individuals involved in other contact sports… we hope findings will open up new approaches for detecting, monitoring and preventing cumulative brain injuries in sport".
Awareness is key and will hopefully act as a stepping stone to more being done to prevent brain injuries in all sport.