According to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), a 2014 survey reported that there are more than 30 million female soccer players around the world. However, new research has found that women who play soccer may face “more extensive changes to brain tissue after repetitive ‘heading’ of the soccer ball” than men.
Heading a ball is an essential skill in soccer in which a player uses the top of their head to field the ball. However, this “skill” has also raised many health-related concerns, such as abnormalities similar to “patients with traumatic brain injury” or long-term effects caused by repetitive heading such as “cognitive decline and behavioral changes.” However, recent studies focused on the effects of heading on women compared to men.
The study was structured to compare how a similar amount of repeated heading differs or is similar between men and women. Dr. Michael Lipton, a “professor of radiology at the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and medical director of MRI at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City,” lead the study along with other colleagues. The researchers utilized a DTI, or diffusion tensor imaging, which examines microscopic changes to the brain. The DTI exhibits the movement of water in the brain, where healthy brain matter possesses uniform movement and more random movement characterizes changes in the brain matter, such as inflammation or loss of neurons. They tested the study on 98 soccer players, half being men and the other half being women. Each participant had an average age of 26 years and many years of soccer experience and heading exposure. Leading up to the study, the players endured frequent heading of soccer balls for 12 months, or around 487 per year for the men and 469 per year for the women.
The study revealed that both men and women had less uniform water movement in the brain, however, women exhibited a much higher amount across a larger area of brain tissue. For example, in men heading affected three regions of the brain, while in women heading affected eight. As Dr. Lipton states, “In both groups, this effect we see in the brain’s white matter increased with greater amounts of heading. But women exhibit about five times as much microstructural abnormality as men when they have similar amounts of heading exposure.”
Although heading the ball is detrimental to the brains of both men and women, research demonstrates how women are more susceptible to changes in the brain tissue due to head impacts. However, researchers have stated that more evidence is needed to confirm the vulnerability to brain injury due to heading based on gender to determine “gender-specific recommendations for safer soccer play.”
Aanya Lall ‘19