17 January 2020 | Comment | Article by Laura Bailey

Footballers at risk of dementia

Dementia in football has recently received a lot of press attention, with both the University of Glasgow and the University of East Anglia conducting studies in this regard.

The study at Glasgow University began after claims that former West Brom striker Jeff Astle died because of repeated head trauma from heading the ball. 

Researchers at the Glasgow University looked at men’s health records from their 40th birthday until December 2016 or until they died. They recorded deaths from all causes and calculated how likely footballers were to have died from any specific Neurodegenerative condition.  Looking at the causes of death they decided that the risk of a professional footballer dying of a neurodegenerative illness was about 3.5 times higher than that of non-players. The strongest link was found to be Alzheimer’s disease with a risk of 5 times greater for the footballers.

Following on from this study the University of East Anglia carried out the ‘Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive Head Impact Exposure in Sport’ (Scores) project. This project screened former professional footballers’ brain health for evidence of dementia that may appear long before any other symptoms become obvious.

The lead researcher, Dr Michael Grey, from UEA’s school of health sciences, said: “We now know that there is a much higher risk of dementia in former professional footballers and we think this is related to repetitive heading of the ball. We do not know if this extends to the amateur level”. 

Iwan Roberts, the former Norwich centre-forward, is among those to have backed the project but the research team are seeking more former players to participate. “I played football for 20 years professionally, and headed many balls over that period. I want to see whether there is anything I should be concerned about in the foreseeable future,” Roberts said.

The UEA is hoping to raise £1 million to carry out this study and hope that they will be able to fund 10% of this amount via crowdfunding.  The FA has stated that there will be a specialist research taskforce created to assimilate the information available. 

On the back of the evidence that has been released, the Scottish FA is intending to lead the way on this issue and is expected to announce a ban on under-12s heading the ball in training later this month.  Although the USA imposed a similar ban in 2015, if Scotland go ahead with the ban they will be the first country in Europe to do so.

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