Soccer

Repetitive heading again linked to cognitive impairment, study suggests

A general view of footballs on the pitch ahead of the Barclays Women’s Super League match at Leigh Sports Village, Manchester. Picture date: Wednesday April 19, 2023.
A general view of footballs on the pitch ahead of the Barclays Women’s Super League match at Leigh Sports Village, Manchester. Picture date: Wednesday April 19, 2023. A general view of footballs on the pitch ahead of the Barclays Women’s Super League match at Leigh Sports Village, Manchester. Picture date: Wednesday April 19, 2023.

The possible link between repetitive heading and cognitive impairment in later life has again been highlighted in new data published on Monday.

The University of Nottingham’s FOCUS study, co-funded by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association, gathered information on heading frequency from 459 retired players aged 45 and over.

Players who recalled heading a ball 15 times or more per match or training session were found to be 3.53 times more likely to score below the test threshold in the cognitive status assessment than players who said they headed the ball up to five times, the FOCUS study found.

Chief executive Mark Bullingham says the FA will continue to invest into research into the risks posed by heading
Chief executive Mark Bullingham says the FA will continue to invest into research into the risks posed by heading Chief executive Mark Bullingham says the FA will continue to invest into research into the risks posed by heading (Aaron Chown/PA)

Players who recalled heading a ball six to 15 times were also 2.71 times more likely to score below the test threshold than the lowest-frequency heading group.

The study said its findings suggested “repetitive heading during a professional soccer career is associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment in later life”.

It concluded further study was required to establish the upper threshold for heading frequency to mitigate this risk.

The FA has already taken steps to reduce the possible risk posed by repetitive exposure to heading by issuing guidance for players in children’s and adults’ game.

Adults at grassroots and professional level are now advised to perform a maximum of 10 ‘higher force’ headers per week in training.

As well as restrictions on heading in training for under-18s football, the FA is entering the second season of trialling the complete removal of heading in under-12s football.

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said on the FOCUS Study: “This study is another step in understanding any potential link between neurogenerative disorders and former professional footballers.

“Since funding the FIELD study, we have continued to invest in research to gain a greater understanding of the area and potential risk factors.

“More research is required to fully understand the issues and we welcome a global approach to do that.

“Whilst there is no doubt of the overall benefit to health of playing football, by addressing potential risk factors whilst we continue to invest in medical research, we will ensure that millions can continue to enjoy our national sport.”

The FIELD study found in 2019 that footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease compared to age-matched members of the general population.

The first part of the FOCUS study, published in June, found 2.8 per cent of retired professional footballers in its study reported medically diagnosed dementia and other neurodegenerative disease compared to 0.9 per cent of controls.

This meant former professionals were found to be 3.46 times more likely to have neurodegenerative diseases compared to the control group.

The study also showed retired footballers in the study were twice as likely to fall below established thresholds in some dementia testing than the general population.