A player jumps to head the ball in an amateur football match

Showing dementia the red card

By Jennifer Baird

Heading a football during training and matches has always been a key skill of the game, but landmark research from Glasgow has now shown that it carries long-term risks.

Dr William Stewart, Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at our Institute of Neuroscience & Psychology and a world-renowned expert in brain injury outcomes, recently led the largest-ever study looking in detail at the incidence of neurodegenerative disease in former professional football players. 

The study looked at the causes of death in over 7,500 former professional footballers who were playing between 1900 and 1976 and matched them to individuals of the same age living in similar social demographic circumstances.

The results are stark. Professional footballers have a five times greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, are four times more likely to develop motor neurone disease and have a three times higher chance of getting Parkinson’s disease.

A no-brainer

As a direct result of his findings, the Scottish Youth Football Association has made an advisory recommendation for heading to be removed from training for under-11s.

“For almost a century,” says Dr Stewart, “we’ve known that there’s been a link between the sport of boxing and risk of dementia, but in the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been greater awareness that this might be a problem in other sports, too. It’s not just the serious concussion-causing head impacts that are problematic, but also the cumulative effect of lots of smaller impacts, leading to problems further down the line.”

Dispelling a myth
Contrary to popular opinion, the regulation weight of a football hasn’t changed for more than 100 years – just the design. The older balls, made of leather, would soak up water when they got wet and become heavier. When they were wet, however, they would fly through the air more slowly than modern synthetic ones, so would connect with the head with a similar force to today’s faster balls.

Boosting your health

“The really important point to make,” says Dr Stewart, “is that playing football is still extremely beneficial for your heart and lungs, so we don’t want to discourage anyone from taking part. It’s just that there’s this major issue of dementia that we need to fix. Going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, schools used to have boxing on the curriculum, and we think that’s a crazy idea now.”
As a direct result of Dr Stewart’s findings, the Scottish Youth Football Association has made an advisory recommendation for heading to be removed from training for under-11s.

Both the Scottish and English Football Associations are considering following the same advice and removing heading from youth level as well as limiting heading in training at a professional level. [UPDATE: In a joint statement on 24 February 2020, the FA, Scottish FA and Irish FA announced that children aged 11 and under would no longer be taught to head footballs in training.]

The pace of change has taken Dr Stewart by surprise. “Within a week or two of publishing results,” he says, “we were seeing changes happen at local right through to global level, where discussions are now taking place into how the game might need to adapt.” It’s clear that the impact of this world-changing research is likely to change the game of football permanently.

Dr Willie Stewart talking about dementia in football

This article was first published January 2020. 

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