Football and its link to dementia

One of the most common elements of a football match you will see anywhere in the world is players heading the football. It could be a defender heading the ball clear from a corner or an attacking player heading the ball into the net for goal. Whether you are watching a Premier League match or an amateur match, heading the ball is a big part of any game.

Due to the number of times players head the ball during a football match, there has always been a suspected link between football and brain damage. The footballs used in competitions such as the Premier League today, are a lot lighter than the balls which were being used 40 years ago. Clearly, footballs were much heavier during the career of former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, who died of an “industrial disease” partly caused by heading heavy footballs throughout his career.

Dawn Astle, who Is the daughter of Jeff Astle, has been contacted by more than 400 families of former players with dementia. This highlights just how serious a problem football could have with brain damage and dementia.

A study group at Glasgow University has been looking into the links between heading the football and dementia as well as other neurodegenerative diseases. The study compared deaths of 7,676 ex-players to 23,000 people from the general population. All the players included in the study were born between 1900 and 1976 and played professional football in Scotland.

Results from the study found that there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease amongst the group of ex-football professionals compared to the general population. For motor neuron disease, which is an umbrella term for a range of neurodegenerative conditions, there was a four-fold increase in risk amongst the footballers in the study.

Initially, the move to investigate dementia in football players was delayed but the study at Glasgow University was commissioned by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association and started in January 2018. Consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart led the study and following the findings said, “Our data show that while former footballers had higher dementia rates, they had lower rates of death due to other major diseases” before continuing, “As such, while every effort must be made to identify the factors contributing to the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease to allow this risk to be reduced, there are also wider potential health benefits of playing football to be considered.”

Despite the findings of this initial study, many people believe it is only the beginning and more detailed research is required to find out the true impact heading a football has on the health of the brain.

FA chairman Greg Clarke said: “The whole game must recognise this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered.”

PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said: “Research must continue to answer more specific questions about what needs to be done to identify and reduce risk factors.”

But arguably the most telling comment in relation to today’s players came from brain injury charity Headway who said further research should focus on modern lightweight footballs. A spokesperson for the charity said, “The fact this long-awaited study has now identified a link in former footballers will no doubt lead to questions about how this will impact the modern game.”

The research carried out at Glasgow University is just the first step in gaining an understanding of the links between football and dementia.