Following a high profile campaign by professional Rugby players into the increased risk of dementia among professional players a new study now shows a similar link to football.

Professor Willie Stewart, Consultant Neuropathologist, conducted a study in 2019 into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and , which found that footballers were three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia, or other similar neurological diseases, than the average person. He was commissioned by the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association in 2017 to carry out research into the brain health for football players.

His latest study, conducted by the University of Glasgow, goes further and has looked into the risk for specific football positions and suggests that that risk of dementia is much higher for defenders, who are five times more likely to suffer from dementia in later life than non-footballers. There is almost no extra risk for goalkeepers, and the risk is three times higher for forward players. It is felt that the risk is higher for defenders due to the amount of heading that the players perform in different positions.

The research also showed that the risk increased, the longer the players career lasted.

The research was conducted into 8,000 Scottish former male professional footballers, compared to 23,000 men from the general population, and showed a clear link between football and the increased risk of dementia.

Professor Stewart believes that heading the ball should be eliminated in football due to this increased risk, which he says could also cause short-term brain function impairment. He is of the view that people should be warned that repeated heading may lead to an increased risk of dementia, as the risk is preventable.

Last week, the Football Association published recommended limits on heading for both professional and amateur footballers. From next season, professional players will only be able to take 10 headers in training from long passes, corners of free kicks, where as this will be limited to 10 headers per week in amateur football.

Dr Stewart has criticised the guidelines, which he states have not been created from any research, and have simply used guesswork. He believes that at an amateur and youth level, consideration should be taken to playing the sport without heading at all.

This new research is particularly important, as there have been increasing concerns about the link between dementia and elite level sport, including football and rugby. Dementia is a devastating illness that has lasting effects on not only the patient, but also their family. The question is therefore, whether the sport should be made risk free and safer for players, or whether it should continue in the same way that has been enjoyed by players for years.

It is certainly promising that guidelines are being brought in to try and reduce the effect of heading on players’ long term brain health, but could more be done?

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