Football heading linked to decline in brain structure and function



By: By Julius Anointing. Freelance Health Writer and DLHA Volunteer. Medical review and editorial support by the DLHA Team


Football heading

African man engaging in football heading during soccer (football). Image by master1305 on Freepik





Heading the ball is a thrilling experience that has long been connected to football, a popular sport across the globe. However, recent research presented at the November 2023 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) has raised concerns regarding the potential long-term effects of football heading on the brain.


This innovative study, led by senior author Dr. Michael L. Lipton, digs into the complexities of brain microstructure and function, revealing a quantifiable decrease over two years. As millions of people worldwide participate in the game, understanding the implications of football heading for brain health becomes critical.



Overview of Study


The purpose of this study is to understand football heading better. Dr. Lipton's research at Columbia University represents a major step forward. The study, which was presented at the RSNA annual meeting, distinguishes itself by taking a longitudinal approach, analyzing brain changes over two years. The study, which included 148 young adult amateur football players, aimed to offer a comprehensive assessment of the influence of football heading on brain microstructure and function. When compared to prior studies, which only captured a snapshot in time, this concentration on a longer timeframe provides distinct insights.



The Risk Associated with Football Heading


The study's findings highlight a disturbing link between football heading and significant declines in both brain microstructure and function. This emphasizes the global concern for brain injury, particularly the possibility for changes in early adulthood to contribute to neurodegeneration and dementia later in life.


The analysis reveals that high levels of heading over the two years are associated with changes in brain microstructure similar to mild traumatic brain injuries, raising significant questions about the long-term consequences of sub-concussive head impacts in football.



Exploring Alternatives:


One promising approach involves using the chest or thigh to control the ball, reducing the direct impact on the head. Additionally, limiting the number of headers during practice sessions and implementing stricter heading guidelines can help minimize exposure to potential harm.


Limiting the number of headers during practice sessions can help reduce the total amount of headers a player is exposed to, which can help reduce the risk of long-term damage. Stricter heading guidelines can help to ensure that players are using proper technique when heading the ball, which can help to reduce the risk of concussions and other injuries.




Application of Evidence to Real Life


The findings of this study have significant implications for football players, parents, coaches, and sports administrators. Young players should be made aware of the potential risks associated with football heading and encouraged to adopt safer ball-control techniques. Parents should engage in open communication with their children about these concerns and support their efforts to protect their brain health.


Coaches can play a pivotal role in promoting safe heading practices and implementing guidelines that limit excessive heading exposure during training and matches. Sports administrators can also contribute by promoting awareness of brain health risks and encouraging the adoption of safer football practices.



Limitations of the Study


While the study provides valuable insights into the potential impact of heading on brain health, it is important to acknowledge its limitations. The study was conducted on a relatively small sample size, and the participants were all collegiate athletes, potentially limiting the generalizability of the findings to other age groups or recreational football players.


Additionally, the study focused on short-term changes in brain structure and function, and further research is needed to investigate the long-term consequences of heading on brain health.



New Directions for Future Study


This study's findings highlight the need for additional research to better understand the relationship between football heading and brain health. To analyze the overall impact of heading, future research should include larger and more diverse populations, including recreational and professional football players of all ages. Longitudinal studies that follow people over time are also required to assess the long-term effects of heading on brain health.





The association between football heading and demonstrable reductions in brain function raises serious concerns about the possible dangers of this frequent practice. While more research is needed to properly understand the long-term effects of heading, it is critical to take a proactive approach to protecting football players' brain health.



Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Soccer Heading Linked to Measurable Decline of Brain Structure and Function Over Two Years News release. Novenmber 31, 2023. Available from: Accessed Decmber 28, 2023






Published: November 28, 2023

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