The year is 2019. Ronaldo is backing Juventus against Sampdoria in the Serie A. At just shy of half time the score is 1 - 1 but out of nowhere CR7 leaps onto the end of the left-back Alex Sandro’s cross, delivering an outrageous header that takes it home. Standing himself at 1.87 meters (6.13 feet), the Portuguese forward is said to have leaped 71 centimeters (28 inches) off the ground to meet the cross at a height of 2.56 meters (8.39 feet). This slow-motion recording of the ridiculous header reveals how Ronaldo literally appears to be levitating. Unbelievable tekkers.
But behind the glory and the praise of delivering such a shot, it turns out redirecting a solid object with your think organ might not be such a good idea. A new study published in JAMA Ophthalmology has found an unsettling link between soccer players who regularly header the ball and damage to the wiring in the brain that connects cognitive and visual function. The results indicate that repeated mild trauma to the head can be harmful even if the injury doesn’t result in a concussion.
Researchers conducted a study investigating 78 healthy soccer players who attended Indiana University and asked half of them to perform headers while the other half were only allowed to kick the ball. The players were set loose on a machine delivering 10 balls at 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour. Once they were done, each of the participants were put through two widely used assessments to examine nuanced visual issues linked to impaired cognition.
The first test showed participants several numbered cards and asked them to read and verbalize them at speed. The second test showed participants an object that got progressively closer to them and recorded the distance at which they started to see double. Seeing double while the object is still quite far away is considered an indication of impaired connection between the eye and the brain.
Players in the header group were found to perform less well on both tests when compared to the kickers, in tests completed immediately after the ball machine challenge as well as two hours later and even a day later, despite not reporting any physical symptoms. This implies that damage can be occurring to the brain of players performing headers even when they don’t perceive themselves as having undergone any sort of trauma, as the damage exists without symptomatic presentation.
While only tested on a small sample of people, the study adds weight to growing concerns about the safety of headers in soccer. It’s not yet known if these small cognitive and visual impairments can eventually amount to anything more sinister, but it asks important questions about the assessment of player’s cognitive function and brain health following matches that take their toll on the ole noggin.
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