A link between dementia in later life and the repeated head impacts associated with soccer headers has been found in a study published in February, 2017, providing evidence that soccer players who head the ball more may have a greater risk of developing a disorder known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

The study, published in Acta Neuropathologica, examined the brains of five patients who had been professional soccer players and one patient who had been a committed amateur player. The authors reported evidence of CTE in four out of the six patients, highlighting evidence of brain injuries associated with the repeated head impacts of heading balls as a potential cause for developing dementia later in life.

CTE has been more widely studied in the US, since the repeated head impacts associated with boxing and American football have also been linked to players developing dementia and CTE later in life. But this study now highlights similarities with head injuries in soccer players who spend much of their careers heading balls.

CTE is one of a group of disorders known as tauopathies, a class of more than 20 neurodegenerative diseases that are characterized by tau protein aggregation in the brain. The symptoms associated with this class of diseases can vary widely, but include cognitive deficits such as dementia and speech problems, movement disorders such as tremors and falls, and behavioral changes such as depression and anxiety.

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) interviewed as part of GlobalData’s recent Tauopathies PharmaFocus report highlighted a number of substantial and challenging unmet needs for these patients. A lack of clear and accurate diagnostic capabilities, combined with low sensitivity for tracking the disease progression, have coupled to severely limit the diagnosis and treatment of patients with tauopathies, including CTE. In addition, there is substantial overlap between different neurological conditions.

Signs of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other diseases, were evident in the cases reported in this latest study, which can also contribute to dementia symptoms in patients. It is therefore clearly evident that much more research is needed to look into the causes, incidence and possible treatment options for soccer players that develop dementia later in life, with soccer governing bodies in the UK and Europe also calling for a greater understanding into the long-term effects of repetitive head impacts sustained over careers.