Why Soccer Players (Even Amateurs!) Could Be at Risk for Brain Injury

by Amanda MacMillan

photo by Virgil Bastosphoto by Virgil Bastos A lot of us ladies grew up playing soccer in grade school, high school and even college -- and many of us have probably played in adult leagues out in the real world, as well. (And then there are SELF staffers; my editor, Rachel, was a not-so-talented high school forward; our social media editor, Stephanie, played Division I soccer for Northwestern U.) That's why this new study is definitely worth nothing: Soccer players who "head" the ball frequently performed worse on memory tests, found researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and brain scans showed abnormalities similar to patients with concussions.

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First, what you should know: This study is NOT talking about people in casual leagues who play just every once and a while. Researchers gave brains scans and cognitive tests to 37 amateur soccer players in NYC adult leagues, 8 of them female, who had been playing for an average of 22 years. Abnormal MRI results were present only in players who reported heading the ball more than 885 to 1,550 times a year; those who headed more than 1,800 times a year also had poorer memory scores. (Even that lowest threshold, 885 times a year, translates to 17 headers a week -- a pretty hard number to reach if you're only playing a game every Sunday.)

It's more likely, though, if you're practicing several nights a week or playing in a competitive college or club league -- and those are the people who should really consider these findings. Except for one study back in March, soccer has been mostly ignored from the growing debate over contact sports -- like football and hockey -- and the lasting health effects of concussions and brain injury.

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That's because heading a soccer ball isn't generally intense enough to lacerate nerve fibers in the brain and cause a concussion, says lead author Michael Lipton. "But repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that can lead to degeneration of brain cells over time," he warns. "Soccer is more of a contact sport than is appreciated," he told Discovery News, and it's something to keep in mind if you spend a lot of time on the field.

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