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A new study shows that heading a football does affect memory.
Researchers have identified ‘small but significant changes in brain function’ after players headed a ball 20 times.
The study from The University of Stirling was published in EBioMedicine and showed that memory performance was reduced by between 41% and 67% in the 24 hours after routine heading practice.
Co-author of the report advises that in the wake of the findings he believes heading practice should be avoided before important events such as exams. He says ‘it takes 24 hours to recover – so I would say, for that 24-hour period, if you’ve got something important coming up, that you shouldn’t be playing football.’
The research consisted of footballs being fired from a machine at the pace and power of a corner kick and a group of footballers were asked to head a ball 20 times each. Their memory and brain function was tested before and after the exercise.
This research has only been able to show that there are short term affects and that you do recover 24 hours later. It is yet to be shown the longer term effects of this kind of damage or whether there is hidden damage caused by this that accumulates over time in footballers.
One ex-footballer spoke to Radio 5 Live and questioned the translation of the testing into real life. Over the course of a match he said that you would never be heading the football at that speed and power 20 times. Even in training when you are doing heading practice then the ball is more likely to be thrown at you rather than being kicked at such high speed. He also advised that when teaching youngsters technique then there is no need to use a hard ball there are many softer, lighter balls that can be used to teach technique instead.
He also noted that in the professional game there has been a growing trend for the ball to be played more on the ground but recognised that in the 5-a side game which is played all round the country at all levels then the ball is played in the air more often due to the smaller number of players.
When asked, he said that he would not stop his child training or paying football the night before an exam.
Dr Angus Hunter, reader in exercise physiology has said “For the first time, sporting bodies and members of the public can see clear evidence of the risks associated with repetitive impact caused by heading a football.
“We hope these findings will open up new approaches for detecting, monitoring and preventing cumulative brain injuries in sport. We need to safeguard the long-term health of football players at all levels, as well as individuals involved in other contact sports.”
It’s the unexpected nature of the test results that make them so devastating for football. None of the academics themselves thought that the mere act of heading a normal football a number of times, at a normal speed, as if in a normal situation, would give rise to an immediate reduction in brain function, and the onset memory loss, in the brains of two thirds of the participants tested.
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