A recent study in the journal Radiology reports that heading a soccer ball, which is a common action for both male and female athletes in the sport of soccer, may pose more of a health risk for women than for men. The study took place between 2013 and 2016, and was a subset of a larger study of both male and female amateur soccer players. The study included 94 athletes - 49 men and 49 women - matched for age and history of heading a soccer ball. Among the females in the study, there was a median of 469 soccer ball headings a year, compared to 487 among the male study participants. The investigators used diffusion-tensor imaging, which is a type of MRI-technology, to examine differences in the structure of white matter in the brain of the participants. [1] In an interview about the study, the lead author, Michael Lipton, describes white matter as a connector of neurons within the brain, and that alterations or abnormalities in white matter may be associated with decreased cognitive function, such as issues with memory. [2]

The results of the study indicate that the female participants who were exposed to the same amount of soccer ball heading as male participants experienced more alteration to the microstructure of their brain’s white matter than the males. This suggests that women may respond differently, or have greater sensitivity, to low-level, repetitive, trauma to the brain than men. [1]

This study highlights the importance of sex-inclusive research, and examining sex differences in a variety of disciplines. While Lipton makes it clear that this doesn’t mean women or men should stop playing soccer, it points to a need for additional research, which may help improve athlete health and the safety of sports.

References

[1] Rubin T.G., Catenaccio E., Fleysher R., Hunter L.E., Lubin N., Stewart W.F., Kim M., Lipton R.B., & Lipton M.L. MRI-defined White Matter Microstructural Alteration Associated with Soccer Heading Is More Extensive in Women than Men. Radiology. 2018 Jul 31:180217.

[2] Kiley Watson, S. Heading May Be Riskier For Female Soccer Players Than Males. NPR. 31 July, 2018.

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