Neurocognitive performance and mental health of retired female football players compared to non-contact sport athletes

Annika Prien, Nina Feddermann-Demont, Evert Verhagen, Jos Twisk, Astrid Junge*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Adverse long-term effects of playing football due to repetitive head impact exposure on neurocognition and mental health are controversial. To date, no studies have evaluated such effects in women. Aims To (1) compare neurocognitive performance, cognitive symptoms and mental health in retired elite female football players (FB) with retired elite female non-contact sport athletes (CON), and to (2) assess whether findings are related to history of concussion and/or heading exposure in FB. Methods Neurocognitive performance, mental health and cognitive symptoms were assessed using computerised tests (CNS-vital signs), paper pen tests (Category fluency, Trail-Making Test, Digit Span, Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test), questionnaires (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, SF-36v2 Health Survey) and a symptom checklist. Heading exposure and concussion history were self-reported in an online survey and in a clinical interview, respectively. Linear regression was used to analyse the effect of football, concussion and heading exposure on outcomes adjusted for confounders. Results FB (n=66) performed similar to CON (n=45) on neurocognitive tests, except for significantly lower scores on verbal memory (mean difference (MD)=-7.038, 95% CI -12.98 to -0.08, p=0.038) and verbal fluency tests (MD=-7.534, 95% CI -13.75 to -0.46, p=0.016). Among FB weaker verbal fluency performance was significantly associated with ≥2 concussions (MD=-10.36, 95% CI -18.48 to -2.83, p=0.017), and weaker verbal memory performance with frequent heading (MD=-9.166, 95% CI -17.59 to -0.123, p=0.041). The depression score differed significantly between study populations, and was significantly associated with frequent heading but not with history of concussion in FB. Conclusion Further studies should investigate the clinical relevance of our findings and whether the observed associations point to a causal link between repetitive head impacts and verbal memory/fluency or mental health.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere000952
JournalBMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2020

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