Recently there has been research and discussions relating to football and the increased likelihood of developing dementia in later life, much like the previous research into boxing.
The concern specifically in relation to football was first publicised in 2002 following the death of Jeff Astle at age 59, a former professional footballer. On re-examination of his brain in 2014 it was found that there were indications that he had suffered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a condition seen in contact sports such as boxing, however it is also found in veterans exposed to blasts and victims of domestic violence. After the re-examination, the coroner determined that heading the ball was a contributing factor to Jeff Astle’s CTE. Similar findings have been reiterated in subsequent studies, surmising this is attributable to the frequency of heading the ball over a prolonged period. A study by Glasgow University indicated that former professional football players are up to five times more likely to die with a neurodegenerative condition than people of the same age range in the general population.
The research by Professor Willie Stewart does not however definitively prove a link between heading the ball and dementia. It is difficult to prove a definitive link as dementia is complex and the cause can be multi-faceted; although repeated trauma is a risk factor, so are other unhealthy lifestyle choices for example smoking, drinking alcohol to excess and being overweight. There are ongoing studies, many of which are required to be over a long period of time, to collect data on players’ professional career and lifestyles for comparison with a non-football playing cohort. It is useful to note that this study also found that former footballers were less likely to die of other lifestyle related disease such as heart disease and some cancers, as well as living an average of approximately three years longer. There are physical and psychological benefits to playing football, and other sports, which Dr Carol Routledge the director at Alzheimer’s UK suggested that the benefits of playing football outweigh the disadvantages where it is done so safely.
Although new guidelines on the number of times heading the ball is to occur during training and competitive games (professional and amateur), there is also potential for aerial collisions and falls resulting head injury during play and questions arise as to how this be managed. In March this year Professor Willie Stewart criticised the management of concussion in football, however conversely the management of concussion and head injury in rugby has improved and football should follow their model, although he does concede that rugby could also be made safer.
Further reading into football and dementia can be found through the links below.