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Exploring the link between football and dementia

12 February 2018

I work on a project investigating Alzheimer’s disease at Cardiff University’s MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics.

Although not directly related to the research project I am involved with, I am interested in the impact of concussion in sport and whether repeated blows to the head/concussions increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It is something that I don’t think has been addressed properly in sport yet, especially in relation to repeat concussions.

Brain injury and concussion have come into the spotlight in recent years, with significant changes in regard to concussion guidelines and policy both in Rugby Union, as well as the Football Association’s (FA) own concussion guidelines released in 2015.

These guidelines recognise an acknowledgment of the seriousness of brain injury and highlight positive steps in dealing with the problems associated with concussion. The problem however, is there is still little advice on sub-concussive blows which would occur with frequent heading of the ball.

At the end of last year the BBC aired a documentary about the possible link between dementia and head injury in professional football.

As a prolific header of the ball, Alan Shearer maintains significant personal interest in the topic. Shearer has concerns about his own health after 20 years in professional football having scored 46 of his 260 Premier League goals with his head.

The investigation regarding the link between football and dementia is still in its early stages.  It was spurred on by pressure from former professional footballers and their families, with former players such as West Bromwich Albion Striker Jeff Astle and former Manchester United & England Midfielder Nobby Stiles having developed dementia in their later years. Astle died at the age of 59 and the coroner concluded that his death was caused by years of heading a football and was ruled as a case of industrial disease. However, until recently, there has been little investigation into the link between heading a football and dementia.

The documentary followed Shearer as he spoke to former players and family members who have suffered dementia after a career in football. He spoke to John Stiles, the son of the 1966 World Cup winner Nobby Stiles, and also to Matt Tees who played in the 1960s and 70s, known for his heading prowess, and had a long career with Grimsby, Charlton and Luton amongst other sides.

Shearer visited the University of Stirling  where Dr Magdalena Ietswaart is conducting research into the risk of heading a football. He underwent cognitive tests before and after heading a ball 20 times, at speeds designed to simulate those of a corner kick.

The research showed no significant difference in terms of cognitive scores. However, some short-terms chemical changes were found. These changes were not perceived as damaging in the short–term, but could potentially have a cumulative effect. Dr Ietswaart’s  previous research has suggested that football heading may have immediate, measurable electrophysical and cognitive impairments.

An area that still maintains cause for concern is the weight of modern footballs. Contrary to popular belief, the modern game uses balls that weigh approximately 430g, compared to their traditional leather predecessors which weighed approximately 390g. The main difference however is that the leather balls absorb water, increasing to around 600g when wet. It is possible that these balls, and repeated sub-concussive blows, may have increased the overall prevalence and risk of dementia and cognitive problems in those who played with them during their careers, however this link is still unclear.

While the documentary did not claim to be comprehensive, the exposure should help to increase research into whether or not football can increase the risk of dementia in former and current players. Both the FA and PFA have commissioned independent research to investigate the link.

The study I work on looks at a wider range of risk factors involved in Alzheimer’s disease, rather than focusing on its possible links with traumatic brain injury.

More specifically, our project aims to better understand how certain genes affect the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The study involves obtaining genetic information from those with and without the condition in order to compare their genetics.

We are currently recruiting people aged 80 and over who do not have a diagnosis of dementia, as well as people with Alzheimer’s disease whose onset of symptoms began at 70 or younger.