Soccer

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Research: Women More Likely to Suffer Brain Injury from Soccer Heading than Men

22 Aug, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

And the hits just keep on coming. Earlier this month, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (a research institute in the Bronx) released some bombshell news: women who head a soccer ball are sustain five times more damage than men. And event owners should be ready for the bounce-back.

Specifically, the study, news of which was published in USA TODAY, found that women who headed the ball a similar number of times to men (ages 18-50) in a 12-month period exhibited five times more extensive brain tissue damage than men.

The problem of the damage that heading can potentially cause is hardly news but it is a complex conundrum. In 2016, U.S. Soccer began enforcing a concussion initiative that banned heading in soccer for children 10 and youngerand limited the amount of heading in practice for children between the ages of 11 and 13. Of course, the success of the rule is predicated on youth coaches enforcing it which, the USA TODAY article notes, not all coaches do. And even when they do, not all kids listen. Many are set on emulating what they see in the pros and after all, Abby Wambach scored a record 184 international goals, often by using headers to direct the ball. Moreover, sport strategists are worried that a lack of aerial ball handling skills will hamper the development of U.S. players at higher levels.

The issue isn’t likely to go away any time soon. A Yahoo! Story notedThe Guardian newspaper cited a study from Purdue University that found heading of goal kicks and hard shots as damaging as helmet-to-helmet impact in football or the punches landed by boxers. "The percentages of 100g hits was effectively the same between women's college soccer and American Football, which really surprised us," Eric Nauman, director of the Human Injury Research and Regenerative Technologies Laboratory at Purdue, told the English newspaper. "And while American football players tend to take more hits overall in a given practice session and game, the college soccer players were getting hit every day and so it evened out."

While football still gets the lion’s share of attention when it comes to CTE diagnoses (a recent reportshowed the NFL paid out more than $500 million in concussion settlement funds), there have been some very visible soccer-related brain injury cases. According to the USA TODAY article, the Jeff Astle Foundation (named in honor of former British soccer player Jeff Astle, who was posthumously diagnosed with CTE) has noted that over 250 former professional soccer players have suffered from "some form of neurodegenerative disease."

Last fall, an article in the SDM Blitznoted that retired English soccer star Alan Shearer has stated publicly that even at the age of 47, his memory has deteriorated, and that he worries about premature dementia. Many of his colleagues, he says, already have it, some to the point of not being able to find their homes or recognize loved ones.

And Shearer, it might be noted, is having tests to determine how heading the ball has affected his brain. He blames professional sports for sweeping the issue under the carpet.

“Nowhere near enough research has been done,” Shearer told The Daily Mirror. “The authorities have been very reluctant to find out any answers. Football must look after old players with dementia and put an end to this sense that once you are done playing, you can be put on the scrapheap. It’s a tough game, it’s a brilliant game, but we have to make sure it’s not a killer game.”

The concern about women sustaining more damage from heading than men is at this point just that: a concern. Event owners can count on seeing repercussions as parents, concerned about their children’s health, demand meetings to know whether ‘no header’ rules are being enforced and if so, what the penalty is for players who do perform the maneuver.

In addition, the report lends itself to plenty of questions: why would women be more susceptible to such injuries, if their heads are taking the same number of hits as men? What is the physiology of the hit and why is it so different for two genders? What can be done to prevent it?

The answers are somewhere down the road, and right now, researchers are trying to make the connections. Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Einstein Lipton, has noted that he believes the next steps for researching the heading-related injuries in soccer include corroborating the findings, researching long-term effects of this brain damage and – yes – determining why women suffer more extensive brain damage than men.

After conducting more research, answering the last question could lead to "interventions" that might inform more successful safety protocols in the future.

"It's likely that there needs to be different approaches and tailored recommendations for people based on sex," Lipton said. "But not only based on sex -- there may be many areas where a more personalized approach will allow us to really protect people better, but also not overprotect people in ways that aren't necessary."

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