Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Canada's Janine Beckie, left, and the United States' Crystal Dunn go for a header during a women's semi-final soccer match at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 2, 2021, in Kashima, Japan.

Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press

When Canada plays Sweden for the gold medal in Olympic soccer Friday, the players won’t think twice about heading the ball, a technique that has always been a key part of the game. But a prominent neurologist in Britain says heading increases the risk of dementia – so much so that it should be banned.

“I would actually say that we are at the point now with the current data to suggest that footballs should be sold with a health warning saying that repeated heading of a football may lead to increased risk of dementia,” said Willie Stewart of the University of Glasgow, who is leading groundbreaking research called FIELD, or Football’s InfluencE on Lifelong health and Dementia risk. “That’s where we are now. This cannot be ignored.”

Dr. Stewart made the comments after the release of a new FIELD study this week involving 7,676 former professional soccer players in Britain. The research confirmed earlier FIELD findings that the risk of dementia among soccer players is 3½ times greater than in the general population. The new study also found that the risk is as much as five times higher for defenders, who do the most heading. However, goalkeepers, who rarely head the ball, have no greater risk of developing dementia than the general population.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Stewart said the increased risk was almost entirely owing to repeated heading. “Unlike other dementias and neurodegenerative diseases where we have no idea what causes it, we know what the risk factor is here,” he said. “It’s entirely preventable. … In a football context, is heading absolutely necessary for football to continue? Or to put that another way, is exposure to the risk of dementia absolutely required for the game football?”

Former rugby players file claim saying governing bodies failed in duty to protect

Ottawa scientists push advances in concussion research

Dr. Stewart said just 20 heads of the ball can have a measurable impact on the brain. “It would be impaired for a day or so before it started to recover,” he said. A typical player likely heads the ball tens of thousands of times during their career, and the damage piles up. “The evidence is very strong now that the more you are exposed to those repetitive mild head impacts, which don’t seem to produce any [concussion] symptoms, the risk of dementia goes up,” he said.

The FIELD study only examined male players because of a dearth of good data on female athletes. However, Dr. Stewart said other research has shown that women could be at even greater risk. A recent U.S. study on head injuries among teenaged soccer players found that the risk of concussion for girls was twice as high as for boys. It also showed that concussions among girls were related mainly to heading the ball, while among boys they were owing to contact with another player. “There’s enough in that that makes us really worry about what this might mean for women and female athletes,” he said.

Dr. Stewart dismissed suggestions that wearing a helmet or the kind of light head covering used in rugby would make a difference. “Helmets in all sorts of research looking at brain injury and concussions have made no difference at all because they take away that sensation of pain that your scalp gives you,” he said. ‘In some studies helmets actually slightly increase the risk. So they give a false sense of security.”

Soccer-governing bodies in several countries, including Canada, have been searching for ways to better address head injuries with new protocols for concussions and limits on heading for children. Soccer Canada restricts heading for players younger than 12 and has developed new guidelines for assessing and treating head injuries. Last week, England’s Football Association recommended limits on heading in training at all levels of the game, including the Premier League and Women’s Super League. The FA said players should do no more than 10 “higher force” headers, such as long passes or from corner kicks, in training each week.

Dr. Stewart called such policies misguided and little more than “unscientific guesswork.” All governing bodies, including FIFA, “should be thinking about what would football look like without heading,” he said. “The global game of football has to change.”

When pressed about putting health warnings on balls, Dr. Stewart said it would help focus attention on the risks of the game. “As a parent, if I were popping into the shop to pick up a football and I could see that health warning there, that might make me think about what my kids do with that ball,” he said. “If you’ve ever had to live with dementia, or seen somebody dying of dementia, if you could figure out a way of preventing that from happening you would do everything you could to possibly achieve that.”

Story continues below advertisement

Susan Kohlhaas, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research U.K., welcomed the findings but said more research was needed. “There is still more to do in order to fully understand what is causing increased dementia risk in outfield players,” she said. “This study did not look at all aspects of players’ lives on or off the pitch to determine what may be behind the increased risk.”

John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, said the study confirms other research showing a link between head injuries and neurodegenerative disease among rugby and National Football League players. But he hoped such research would not discourage people from taking up those sports and becoming more active. “Can these sports and the training for them be modified to reduce these problems?” he asked. “These are important discussions. But it would be tragic if this type of study led us to become even more a nation of couch potatoes.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies