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Neurologist: More study of soccer-brain injuries needed

Wednesday - 6/12/2013, 10:06am  ET

AP: e9320a91-4911-4646-a25a-1931ee3b8f90
Professional soccer players frequently hit the ball with their heads. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

WASHINGTON - A new study of longtime soccer players finds those who "head" the ball most frequently are most likely to have brain injuries and memory problems.

Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York conducted high-tech scans of the brains of 37 adults who have all played soccer since they were kids. The median age of the players was 31.

The players also were given memory tests, according to the study, published this week in the journal "Radiology."

WTOP talked about the study with a local neurologist with extensive background in brain injury, including work with brain-injured veterans at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center.

"Certainly before you make blanket statements to suggest that heading the ball is going to cause chronic problems regarding brain injury down the road, you'd want a little bit more evidence," said Dr. Michael Yochelson, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at MedStar National Rehabilitation Network.

Yochelson said because this study looked at just 37 players, larger studies are needed.

"But nonetheless, I think that this is highly supportive, and I think that we need to take precautions until we have more evidence," Yochelson said.

Young children are of particular concern because their brains are still developing, he said.

"I would certainly say, someone under the age of 10 to 15 probably should not be heading the ball at all."

For young soccer players who do head the ball, he suggests limiting the number of times each child can do so during practices, and perhaps during games as well.

He also said soccer rules may need to be changed, particularly for non-pro players.

Another idea would be to require soccer players to wear helmets, although Yochelson knows such a suggestion probably wouldn't be popular.

"If we're not changing the rules of the game where you're going to not head the ball, I think you have to look at protective equipment," he said.

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