Soccer is not good for your brain, at any age and whether you head the ball or not
With 13 million participants, soccer is the third most popular sport in the US after basketball and baseball. Worldwide, 250 million people play soccer. Unfortunately, a number of studies have linked playing soccer with neurological symptoms. The latest study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine published in Neurology evaluated 222 amateur soccer players aged 18 and older (mostly in their 20s and 30s) over a two-week period.
The study suggests that playing soccer even without heading the ball is associated with symptoms of a concussion. Those who did not report heading the ball often had unintentional head impacts (head to head, elbow or knee to head, head kicked, etc) and were much more likely to have concussion-related symptoms which were rated as moderate or severe. These symptoms included headache, dizziness, feeling dazed, and other. Unintentional head impacts were experienced by 37% of men and 43% of women, while heading-related symptoms were reported by 20%.
Not all symptoms necessarily represent a concussion and some pain and dizziness could be neck-related, so additional large studies are needed. Some studies have detected brain changes in soccer players who frequently head the ball, but these findings are considered to be preliminary and not conclusive.
According to the US Soccer Federation children under the age of 10 should not be allowed to head the ball in practice or in games. Children aged 11 to 13 are allowed to head the ball only during practice. However, this new study suggests that soccer players of any age may be risking brain injury, mostly from heading and unintentional head injuries.