By Ken Reed

For most of the past decade, the brain injury chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been linked with American football. This is due to the extensive number of collisions in the game and the relatively high rate of concussions suffered by participants.

Boxing and hockey are two other sports regularly identified as having a higher risk for brain injury.

However, in recent years, soccer has gained attention as being dangerous for the brain as well, due to the fairly high number of concussions (especially among girls) and the repetitive brain trauma resulting from the common practice of heading the ball.

Now, a new study has increased concerns about the safety of soccer, especially heading.

As part of the study, four former soccer players who had advanced forms of dementia were also found to have CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously.

Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center, points out that CTE isn’t just a football-based disease.

“I think it points out again that this is an equal-opportunity disease,” says McKee. “It just depends on repetitive head impacts.”

The study’s lead author, Dr. Helen Ling of the University College London Institute of Neurology, seems to concur.

“This is the first time CTE has been confirmed in a group of retired footballers (soccer players),” says Ling. “They all sustained minor blows to the head thousands of times.”

The players in the study had not experienced significant concussions during their careers. As such, it indicates that repetitive blows to the head, such as from heading, collisions with other players, or running into goal posts, could be playing a significant role in the development of CTE in soccer athletes.

Study authors caution that because of the small sample size, more research, on a larger scale, is needed. They also point out that the players in the study had played soccer for more than two decades.

Nevertheless, soccer organizations have already taken steps in recent years to cut down on heading. For example, the American Youth Soccer organization has eliminated heading all together for players under the age of 10 and limited heading during practice for those between 11 and 13.

Given recent research on CTE, the growing focus on repetitive brain trauma, and the fact the human brain is still developing through the age of 20 — at least, restrictions on heading for youth and high school soccer are only likely to increase in the coming years.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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