Repeated heading of footballs by professional players could increase their chances of suffering from dementia, a new study has found.
Researchers from University College London (UCL) and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery carried out post-mortem analysis on the brains of six ex-footballers.
All cases showed evidence of Alzheimer’s disease, while four of the six had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) pathology, a condition which can lead to dementia and is often caused by “repeated blows to the head”.
Scientists said that these instances were “probably related” to repetitive head impacts from player-on-player collisions and heading the ball during their careers. The six players were part of a wider study of 14 retired players over three decades, all skilled headers of the ball who suffered from dementia.
They were all referred to the Old Age Psychiatry Service in Swansea run by Dr Don Williams who believes the subject is worthy of attention.
“In 1980, the son of a man with advanced dementia asked me if his father’s condition had been caused by heading the ball for many years as a powerful centre half,” he said. “As the brain is a very fragile organ, well protected within the skull, this was a constructive suggestion.
“I looked out for men with dementia and a significant history of playing soccer, followed them up and where possible arranged for post-mortem studies to be carried out.
“The results suggest that heading the ball over many years, a form of repetitive sub-concussive head injury, can result in the development of CTE and dementia. “Thus the original suggestion has been shown to be of merit and of further investigation.”
Previous studies have found evidence of CTE in the brains of contact sportspeople, most notably boxers and American football players. Footballers are exposed to repetitive blows to the head but these are unique when compared with boxing and American football in that they are usually more minor and are less likely to lead to significant neurological symptoms or loss of consciousness.
Professor Huw Morris from the UCL Institute of Technology said: “We do not yet know exactly what causes CTE in footballers or how significant the risk is.
“Major head injuries in football are more commonly caused by player collisions rather than heading the ball. The average footballer heads the ball thousands of times throughout their career, but this seldom causes noticeable neurological symptoms.”
And lead author of the UCL Queen Square Brain Bank study, Dr Helen Ling, repeated this need to view the findings with caution.
“Previous studies have shown that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is increased in people with previous head injuries,” Dr Ling said. “On the other hand, the risk of dementia is also increased with age and we don’t know if these footballers would have developed Alzheimer’s disease anyway if they hadn’t played football.
“The most pressing research question is therefore to find out if dementia is more common in footballers than in the normal population.”