Scientists link brain damage (dementia) to football headers

Repeated headers during a footballer’s professional career may be linked to long-term brain damage, according to tentative evidence from UK scientists. THINKSTOCK

The most detailed British research into dementia among retired soccer players has concluded the condition may be connected to repeated head ‘impacts’, caused by collisions and thousands of headers, the Irish Independent reported.

The study included post-mortem examinations on six players who suffered dementia, which reveal that all of them had suffered from a tearing to a brain membrane consistent with chronic, repetitive head impacts from playing football.

The incidence of that tearing in the general population is just 6pc, based on previous studies.

Post-mortem examinations on the brains of retired players have been very rare, though provide the best possible means of comprehending whether there is a link between heading the ball and neurological disease. The six post-mortem examinations also found that four of the men, all but one professionals, had suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disorder. In the general population, there is a mere 12pc incidence of CTE.

The research, funded by the Drake Foundation, put pressure on the wealthy players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, to initiate research into possible links between heading and brain disease. The union has been under fierce scrutiny since the plight of Nobby Stiles, one of at least four members of the 1966 World Cup winning team to have suffered from dementia, was revealed last month. His family have received no support from the union and want his illness to trigger action to help others. The PFA says the issue of research lies with the FA.

Stiles developed dementia at the age of 60 and another of the disclosures of the new research by Swansea University and UCL, published in Acta Neuropathologica today is that the ex-players in question were relatively young. It said the four CTE diagnoses were “probably related to their past prolonged exposure to repetitive head impacts from head to player collisions and heading the ball thousands of times”.

Lead author Dr Helen Ling, of UCL’s Institute of Neurology, said: “This is the first time CTE has been confirmed in a group of retired footballers. Our findings of CTE in retired footballers suggest a potential link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain pathologies in later life. However, it is important to note that we only studied a small number of retired footballers with dementia.” The Irish Independent added.

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