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Does heading a ball cause dementia?

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

In February a ban was imposed for children under the age of 12 from heading footballs during training. This is due to research displaying a link between headers and dementia as it follows Glasgow University research that showed former footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die from brain disease.

One of the arguments for the ban is due to football players suffering from 'concussion'. Concussion is caused when the brain in shaken and knocks against the inside of the skull. This causes the nerves and structures within the brain to be altered- increasing the risk of developing dementia. Dementia occurs as set of related symptoms as the brain is damaged. The symptoms involve progressive impairments to memory, thinking and behaviour which affect the ability to perform everyday activities.

Watch this short TED-Ed clip which discusses concussion and the impacts to players:

The guidelines state that headers will gradually get more frequent in training, for example under-12 teams will be limited to one session a month with a maximum of five headers, while under-13 age groups will have one session a week. Also, the rules also advise not to over-inflate the football when introducing heading in training, instead using the lowest pressure allowed. Furthermore, the guidance also sets out required ball sizes for training and matches for each age group. This all aims to reduce the risk of concussions and developing dementia.

However, the regulations still allow for heading in match-play. The FA have stated '"Our research has shown that heading is rare in youth football matches, so this guidance is a responsible development to our grassroots coaching without impacting the enjoyment that children of all ages take from playing the game.'

Many rugby players are also fighting for a ban. Steve Thompson (a rugby world-cup player) and seven other former players claim the sport has left them with permanent brain damage as every member of the group has recently been diagnosed with the early signs of dementia caused by repeated blows to the head. Steve Thompson states that he 'can't remember any of those games' when he won in the 2003 World Cup.

From this we can see that rules and regulations need to be created and followed to protect player welfare as our understanding of brain damage caused by ball and collision impact need to developed throughout all sports.

Recently, I watched a film: Concussion. It shows Dr Bennet Omalu trying to convince the authorities and create awareness among the public about the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a football-related head trauma in players. I would highly recommend it if you want to explore more into the devastating impacts of head trauma on athletes. Here is the trailer:

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