The inquest of former footballer Jeff Astle in 2002 famously concluded that his death following dementia was a result of industrial disease caused by heading footballs.
Since then various studies have provided further evidence of such links but nothing as comprehensive as the University of Glasgow’s recent effort.
The research, published in October, has produced one of the first pieces of truly credible evidence to contribute to this subject.
The FIELD (Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk) study analysed the medical records of over 7,000 former professional male footballers in Scotland from 1900 to 1976 and compared them against those of the general population.
The results show that footballers are at a much higher risk at suffering from a number of different neurodegenerative diseases than the general population.
Those footballers who were studied were five times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, four times more likely to get motor neurone disease and twice as likely to have Parkinson’s disease.
In total, the study claims that repeated heading of a football puts your risk of contracting a neurological disease in later in life up three-and-a-half fold.
FIELD was funded by the Football Association (FA), the Players Football Association (PFA) and the NHS Scotland. Its results are perhaps the loudest wake-up call yet for custodians of the game about its risks on the brain; yet the search for more evidence and understanding of this issue goes on.
Dr Willie Stewart, who led the study, stresses that this is the first step to finding out more about this conditions.
“An important aspect of this work has been the ability to look across a range of health outcomes in former professional footballers,” he says.
“This allows us to build a more complete picture of health in this population. Whilst every effort must be made to identify the factors contributing to the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease to allow this risk to be reduced, there are also wider potential health benefits of playing football to be considered.”
Media scrutiny of the dangers of football has intensified over the last decade, partly as the deteriorating health of a number of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side has emerged. Three members of that squad – Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson – were all diagnosed with dementia in their later years.
Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn has also worked tirelessly to keep the issue in the media spotlight since the landmark coroner’s report about her father.
The latest findings clearly have implications for players at all levels and age-groups within the game.
Steven Shaw, a sports scientist and therapist who has worked in grassroots and school football, believes the FIELD study is certainly worrying; and should prompt immediate action.
“I think we need to take whatever evidence there is and make sure we act upon it. Otherwise we are going to lose a lot of people to dementia which could possibly be prevented.
“Heading is very much part of football, but do seven, eight and nine-year-olds need to be doing heading in training? For me, no.
“I don’t see the need. I think its negligence if you’re making a child head a football repeatedly. It’s crazy. It will only come from a rule change to prevent heading in the game.”
Some football organisations have indeed responded to these and other, less recent findings about the dangers of heading footballs.
Bournemouth AFC, for example, has banned all heading in its youngest age groups within its academy system. In 2016, the US Soccer Federation also banned all heading for players under the age of ten.
Shaw welcomes such measures but believes they do not completely solve the issue.
“If you invented football from day one now, and someone said ‘I think you should be able to head the ball’, the response would be ‘why? Why would you want people to head a ball?’
“Bournemouth is a good example of a forward-thinking medical department. I think we’ll see a lot of other professional teams take similar changes into account – but you can’t change the grassroots game.”
The study was not all bad news for footballers however. It found that those observed were less likely to die of both heart disease and some forms of cancer. Furthermore, they live an average of three years longer than non-footballers.
Although the study is perhaps the most credible of its kind yet, some flaws have been identified by critics. One of these is that the research only covers the Scottish men’s professional game. Football in other countries and standards, as well as the women’s game could produce different results, some argue.
The papers also does not consider the change in the materials used to make footballs.
Because the study was conducted for players between 1900 – 1976, it will only cover those who used the traditional leather ball, which was a lot heavier than its modern counterpart. This may mean more of an impact on the brain, and therefore more damage. The counter argument is that modern balls are lighter and so move faster – potentially increasing the damage they can do to players’ brains.
FA chairman Greg Clarke expressed his views on the study, saying he and the FA welcome the findings, but saying this is “this is only the start of our understanding”.
The Alzheimer’s Society also commented, with head of research Dr James Pickett saying:
“This is the longest and largest study on dementia and football to date and clearly shows retired professional footballers are at increased risk of dementia.
“There have been changes in the game of football over the decades. So if you love kicking a ball around with your friends and family after work, don’t feel put off.”
The study could well lead to drastic changes in the game to better protect players in coming years.
For now further research will only help to keep the issue high on the agenda of footballing bodies and enable parents and grassroots coaches to make more informed choices about heading in future.