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Soccer Heading Could Lead to Greater Brain Damage in Women Than Men, Study Suggests

What to Know

  • A new study suggests that heading soccer balls may take a much higher toll on women’s brains than men’s
  • The report suggests that among amateur players who headed a similar amount of balls, women showed more signs of microscopic brain damage
  • The study, which spanned from 2013 to 2016, is the first to look at head-to-head comparisons of post-heading brains

A new study suggests that heading soccer balls may take a much higher toll on women’s brains than men’s.

According to a scientific report published Tuesday in Radiology, among amateur players who headed a similar amount of balls, women showed more signs of microscopic damage in their brains’ white matter.

In soccer, “heading” — as the name suggests — is when a player hits the ball with their head in order to deflect its course.

The study is the first to look at head-to-head comparisons of post-heading brains.

Over the span of three years, from 2013 to 2016, researchers recruited 98 soccer players from amateur teams, which also included colleges. The scientists compared male and female players who headed the ball a similar number of times over the past year, which, for men meant an estimated 487 headers and an estimated median of 469 headers for women.

According to the report, entitled “MRI-defined White Matter Microstructural Alteration Associated with Soccer Heading Is More Extensive in Women than Men,” although both groups produce a similar amount of headers, women’s brains had more spots that showed signs of microscopic damage.

A type of scan called diffusion tensor imaging identified brain regions with changes in white matter. The white matter are bundles of message-sending fibers.

According to the report, in certain cases, those altered spots showed possible damage to a protective coating that speeds neural signals.

The study found that, in men, only three brain regions showed potential damage associated with heading. In women, eight regions showed signs of damage.

These brain changes weren’t enough to cause symptoms in the players that took part in the study.

However, repeated blows to the brain can contribute to memory loss and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE, which is a disorder found in professional football players, soldiers and others who have suffered repetitive brain trauma.

“With similar exposure to heading, women exhibit more widespread evidence of microstructural white matter alteration than do men, suggesting preliminary support for a biologic divergence of brain response to repetitive trauma,” the report says.

It is unknown why women's brains seem to be more at risk, although researchers suggest that anatomical differences, genetics and hormones may be contributing factors. 

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