A study published in last month's Neurology reports that professional soccer players are at significantly higher risk for long-term brain injuries that affect their mental function. These brain injuries result from either heading the ball or from head-on collisions with other players. Researchers compared 53 professional Dutch soccer players to 27 elite Dutch track and swimming atheletes, testing them on cognitive skills and interviewing them on medical and occupational history. "The professional soccer players show impaired memory, planning and recognition skills when compared to other athletes," said neurologist and study co-author Barry Jordan, University of California at Los Angeles. Forward and defensive soccer players, who head the ball most frequently, had greater mental decline than midfield players or goalies. The level of mental decline is correlated with the number of concussions and frequency of heading the ball.

Whether these finding can be applied to amateur or recreational soccer players remains to be determined by future research, Jordan added. "I'm not advising anyone to stop playing soccer," said Jordan. "But if a soccer player at any level receives a concussion, it should be taken seriously by physicians and coaches." The American Academy of Neurology offers "concussion in sports guidelines" designed to help coaches and athletic trainers determine the severity of a player's concussion and when the injured athlete should receive emergency medical treatment; and when he/she may safely return to competition.—June Kinoshita

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  1. . Chronic traumatic brain injury in professional soccer players. Neurology. 1998 Sep;51(3):791-6. PubMed.