New research conducted by medical experts at Glasgow University in the United Kingdom has found that former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term for diseases characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking skills that may affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Memory loss is an example — with Alzheimer’s being the most common cause.
The 22-month study, which was funded by the FA and the players’ union and published on Monday, began after claims that Jeff Astle, former West Brom striker, died because of repeated head trauma. The research confirms the fears by many of a suspected link between devastating brain injury and football, whether through repetitive heading or collisions. The researchers compared the deaths of 7,676 ex-players, who were selected from among men who had played professional football in Scotland between 1900 and 1976, to 23,000 others who were non-footballers selected from the general population.
They found that footballers had a higher risk of death from neurodegenerative disease — although they were less likely to die of other common pathologies such as heart diseases and some cancers, including pulmonary cancer. “Risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls,” Willie Stewart, a neuropathologist and medical consultant who led the study, stated. “This is the largest study to date looking in this detail at the incidence of neurodegenerative disease in any sport, not just professional footballers. Our data show that while former footballers had higher dementia rates, they had lower rates of death due to other major diseases.
“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.” The connection between contact sport and neurodegenerative diseases has been a subject of fierce debate in recent years after Astle died of dementia in 2002 and an inquiry into his death found that heading heavy leather footballs had contributed to his brain trauma.
“The whole game must recognize this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered. It is important the global football family now unites to find the answers and provide a greater understanding of this complex issue,” said Greg Clarke, FA chairman, while speaking on the findings.