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Soccer may cause brain injuries: Will you still let your kids play?

A recent study has tied the practice of heading in soccer to brain injuries, which has sparked controversy from parents and players alike. Is it enough to keep kids off the field, or is the study being blown out of proportion?

Soccer header

While soccer isn’t a contact sport, and may not be thought of as dangerous to the head as sports like football, those who have played soccer since childhood will have likely headed the ball thousands of times by the time they are an adult.

A new study from Albert Einstein Medical School suggests that this practice may be tied to cumulative — and alarming — damage to the brain. Does this information change your mind about letting your child play soccer, or was the study a waste of money because injuries can always happen when you play sports?

Brain damage from heading

When someone heads a soccer ball, this means they hit the ball with their head in an effort to stop its progress, control its movement and to return a kicked ball to the field of play. Albert Einstein Medical School in New York City studied 37 adults, mostly men, who had played soccer since they were children.

On average, a soccer player heads the ball — which is traveling up to 50 miles per hour — between six and 12 times during a game, and can double that amount during practices.

The study found that players who had headed the ball over 1,000 times in the previous year showed significant deterioration in brain function in areas such as memory, processing visual information and attentiveness. It’s thought that the cumulative damage of heading the ball over years of play can be even more dangerous. This has raised concerns for parents across the U.S., where children are often enrolled in community soccer programs at a very young age, and may continue to play through high school and adulthood.

Put kids in a bubble?

Some parents worry that the study’s results could be used to shelter kids more because we, as parents, are concerned that our children will get injured. “So could walking down the street and tripping, or falling down a flight of stairs,” wrote Veronica, a commenter on the KCTV5 Facebook page. “So could being bored to death by not being able to do anything fun for fear of hurting themselves. Life is tricky. Best live it to the fullest.”

Reserve heading for older kids

There are some suggestions that heading not be done by kids under the age of 12, and older children should be monitored for signs of injury, such as headaches or dizziness. Haley, another commenter, explained that her instincts led her to a similar conclusion. “I never let my son do it until he was 10 or 11, based on everything I had read. He was the only one on the team that didn’t do it. Over the past many years, there have been many kids we know with concussions from it, or other issues. Therefore, [it was a] good choice on my part.”

Good idea to monitor

While some feel that the study results are really common sense, it’s still a good idea to keep tabs on your children who do participate in soccer and head the ball on a frequent basis. “My son starts high school soccer this fall, and even before he left the 8th grade, they did a baseline test on him and he will be monitored on a regular basis to assess for any injury or damage,” Amanda, mom of four, told us. “I know that brain health is now taken very seriously in all sports, and while some parents may think ‘big deal,’ I for one am glad that they’re monitoring all student athletes.”

More on kids and sports

Youth sports: Good for their muscles and their brains
How far should you push kids at sports?
Team sports: How kids benefit from organized athletics

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