Can Playing Soccer Lead to Alzheimer’s Disease?

Soccer

It’s not surprising that a hard knock to the head can seriously harm the brain and cause memory problems. But what may be surprising is that repetitive mild head injuries over time can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. A March 2023 study suggests that athletes who play soccer have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Neurodegenerative disease was significantly higher among male soccer players playing on a top-division team compared with the general population. Another study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that former pro soccer players had a 3.5 times higher death rate from neurodegenerative diseases than the general population. This begs the question, is soccer bad for the brain?

A March 2023 study suggests that athletes who play soccer have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Click To Tweet

WHAT IS A CONCUSSION AND HOW DOES IT AFFECT THE BRAIN?

A concussion changes the way the brain functions and can result from bumps, jolts, shakes, or blows to the head or body that cause the brain to move back and forth within the skull. Brain cells can become damaged or stretched, and our fragile brains cannot support this type of trauma. Many of us are under the impression that concussions typically cause a person to blackout, similar to what we see in Hollywood action films when an actor is hit or falls down. In reality, however, more than 90% of concussions do not involve loss of consciousness. Yet, they can cause a host of problems.

CONCUSSION SYMPTOMS

Concussions are rated mild, moderate, and severe. Be aware that mild TBIs and moderate concussions do not mean there are no long-term problems. Decades of scientific studies show that head injuries are a major cause of psychiatric issues, but few people know it. In addition, research shows that one or more mild or moderate head injuries can increase the likelihood of lasting memory impairment.

Concussion symptoms include:

People under 25 years old are two-and-a-half times more likely to have memory issues caused by concussions, according to research. After 55 years old, the risk jumps to four times higher risk of memory problems. And if a person has the APOE4 gene—a gene that is associated with an increased risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease—the chances are even higher. A cohort study showed that people with traumatic brain injury had an increased likelihood of dementia diagnosis even 30 years after the initial brain injury occurred.

HOW HEAD INJURIES CAUSE BRAIN TRAUMA

The wildly complex and fascinating human brain is seemingly well protected from harm by its hard skull. The problem is the skull is made up of facial, cranial, and hyoid bones along with ear ossicles, all of which are ridged. Any kind of trauma to the head can do damage to the soft, pliable brain that lives underneath the skull by pushing against the skull’s uneven surface. Whether it’s a hard shake, a strike from a fall, whiplash from a car accident, or “heading” in soccer, the fragile brain can easily sustain long-term damage.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is common. A recent study noted that approximately 3 million Americans have some kind of mild traumatic brain injury every year, and 20% have symptoms that last more than a month. Brain trauma can present itself in a variety of ways including:

  • Broken blood vessels and bleeding
  • Increased pressure in the brain
  • Nerve cell damage (at the connection site)
  • Brain cells open and leak proteins that cause inflammation
  • Lack of oxygen
  • Bruising of the brain

SOCCER HEADING AND BRAIN INJURIES

Heading a soccer ball is not the only sports activity that puts athletes at risk. Hockey, football, horseback riding, boxing, cycling, rugby, and other recreational activities that involve a fall risk or intense physical impact can potentially result in traumatic brain injury and subsequent neurodegenerative diseases. While most team sports that put athletes at risk of a head injury mandate the use of a helmet, soccer typically does not require helmets for kids, adolescents, or adults. “Heading” the ball is no longer allowed for children 10 and under in youth soccer, but teens can still use their heads to bump the ball. In all sports, a helmet can prevent more extreme traumatic brain injury, but it can’t prevent all damage.

COMMON CAUSES OF HEAD INJURIES

It is common to hear about sports as the main cause of concussions, but there are many other causes. For example, the causes of head injuries also include destructive acts like domestic violence, child abuse, gunshot wounds, and combat injuries sustained by people in the military. According to a 2019 study, 90% of victims with a history of domestic violence have traumatic brain injuries associated with abuse. Research published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma shows that children and adults are at much higher risk of neurological issues as a result of domestic violence. These types of trauma are almost always coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which also negatively affects the brain.

PROTECT YOUR HEAD TO PROTECT YOUR MEMORY

To reduce your risk for head injuries and to safeguard your memory, be smart and follow these tips:

  • Don’t head soccer balls.
  • Avoid contact sports.
  • Avoid high-risk activities.
  • Wear a helmet when needed.
  • Don’t text while driving.
  • Don’t climb ladders.
  • Hold the handrail when going up or down stairs.
  • Wear a seatbelt while driving.

If you or your child suffers a head injury—even a mild one—be aware that it can negatively impact memory and take it as a wake-up call to get serious about your brain health. If any cognitive or psychological issues arise following a TBI, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional who understands that underlying damage to the brain can cause such problems. Undergoing brain SPECT imaging to see how the brain is functioning can be helpful in identifying if a past head injury is contributing to any issues.

Memory problems, cognitive issues, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

5 Comments »

  1. Would prior injuries be visible on the SPECT scans, and would Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment help in healing the brain? Thanks.

    Comment by RAH — July 3, 2023 @ 3:55 AM

  2. There are now soccer protective headbands available. Do you think these are effective?

    Comment by Nancy Snell — July 3, 2023 @ 5:21 AM

  3. Can you explain the effects on the brain with kids gocart and cart racing activities or having them into a cart racing program under the age of 16. ??

    Main concern is with the unavoidable repetitive accerleration and deceleration of the vehicle on the brain even they have a helmet and proper til age has seat belt and harness on. ??

    Comment by Joe — July 3, 2023 @ 12:12 PM

  4. Hi! Need your help. My husband got a concussion about 2 months ago by playing soccer. He keep accidentally bumping his head and symptoms come storming back. What should he do?! I terrified for his future and deeply desire true restoration for his head! Can you please help?

    Comment by Kailey Bartholomew (Neef) — July 26, 2023 @ 9:24 AM

  5. excellent advice!

    Comment by Doug Morris — August 26, 2023 @ 2:33 PM

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