18 Nov 2021

New research into football headers and memory decline - are Kiwi kids protected?

From Nine To Noon, 9:30 am on 18 November 2021

As more research continues to emerge into the effects of heading a football and cognitive decline, there's no move in New Zealand yet to introduce heading regulations for younger players.

Children under 10 have been banned in the US from heading balls since 2015, and the UK moved last year to ban the under-12s from headers in training and introduce a limit of 10 at training at all levels.

In the latest study, a group of former professional footballers in the UK were asked about the number of headers they'd taken through their career and then run through a memory test similar to those that screen for dementia.

No caption

Photo: Photosport/123RF/Supplied

The research, published recently in the Journal of Neuropsychology, found strong evidence between the number of headers over their careers and the players' lower test scores. Dr Davide Bruno of Liverpool John Moores University joined Kathryn Ryan to talk about the research.

While there has been speculation on the subject for a number of years, Dr Bruno says this study is the first direct link with headers and cognitive impairment in retired football players.

“There have been quite a few studies looking at active younger players, but ours was the first study looking at retired players. Our participants were a bit older and they were removed from active football participation.”

He says most players were around 35 years on from their professional career.

“That is what makes our study unique.”

The study focussed exclusively on former professional players due to the higher intensity they played football at.

“They would be more likely injure themselves, they would be more likely to take harder headers – higher force headers – and, when you compete for the ball, you might get hit in the head in other ways, elbows and other heads.”

The other important reason was the former professional players are older.

“As I said, there has been quite a lot of research looking at young, active current players – amateur and professional – with mixed results. But these are younger and much less likely to show signs of cognitive impairment or dementia. You don’t really know if the impairment you observe immediately after heading the ball will continue on for the next two weeks, three years, or 20 years.

“If you’re interested in the link between heading the ball and dementia, it’s important to include older retired professionals as part of your study.”

Within the professional game, it can be difficult to assess how many headers are going on within training While there’s a limit to the amount of ‘high-force’ headers in training, it’s unclear how many lower force headers are undertaken and there’s a lot of nuance about what constitutes either and whether they can both cause damage.

Dr Bruno says that if we agree that adults should not be heading the ball too much, and it is now regulated, then it’s a foregone conclusion that children should do the same.

“I don’t think it would hurt to limit the number of headers, for sure.”