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Football and the brain research breakthrough

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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.

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Study reveals if body weight could increase the risk of stroke

Could body extra body weight have an effect on the brain? A new study investigates if it could have an increased risk of stroke or diabetes

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A blue measuring tape to mark a study on the effects of body weight on stroke and dementia

A new Australian study using UK data has shown that extra body fat could lead to brain atrophy which increases the risk of dementia and stroke.

Researchers found that increased body fat could lead to increased atrophy of grey matter and consequently the higher risk of declining brain health. They compiled the data from 336, 309 UK Biobank participants.

Stroke studies

The team analysed the genetic data of the participants within three metabolically different obesity types – unfavourable, neutral and favourable. This established if some bodyweight groups were more at risk than others.

The unfavourable and neutral adiposity subtypes were associated with lower grey matter volume. Metabolically favourable adiposity was tentatively associated with a higher grey matter volume.

The study was published in the journal Neurobiology of Ageing.

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Results on body weight

The study did not find any conclusive evidence to link a specific obesity subtype with dementia or stroke. It did suggest that the possible role of inflammation and metabolic abnormalities and how they contribute to obesity and grey matter volume reduction.

The researchers highlighted that maintaining a healthy weight is key for public health. They stressed that there is a need to examine the type of obesity when assessing the impact on health.

Read more: Osteoarthritis: breaking the cycle

Further investigation

Dr. Anwar Mulugeta, a researcher in the Australian Centre for Precision Health at the University of South Australia said: “While the disease burden of obesity has increased over the past five decades, the complex nature of the disease means that not all obese individuals are metabolically unhealthy, which makes it difficult to pinpoint who is at risk of associated diseases, and who is not.”

He added: “Generally, the three obesity subtypes have a characteristic of higher body mass index, yet, each type varies in terms of body fat and visceral fat distribution, with a different risk of cardiometabolic diseases. We found that people with higher levels of obesity especially those with metabolically unfavourable and neutral adiposity subtypes had much lower levels of grey brain matter, indicating that these people may have compromised brain function which needed further investigation.”

Read more: New report reveals a higher number of people with a brain injury in the criminal justice system

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Police must be monitored for brain injury, argue researchers

Twenty-one police officers out of the 54 who took part in their study, all from the same police constabulary, reported having a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

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“Most of the head injuries were from general life experience, such as contact or extreme sports, and some officers were ex-armed forces,” says Huw Williams, associate professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Exeter.

Those with TBI were more likely to have experienced post‐concussion symptoms, which was associated with greater severity of PTSD, depression and drinking to cope.

The research supports findings that head injury can compound PTSD, which almost one in five officers have, and exacerbate drinking as a coping strategy.

The study is the first of its kind, and came about when researchers saw there was no data on the relationship between brain injury in police officers and their mental health.

“We did a brief scoping exercise of the literature, and were fascinated to see there was no research on brain injury in police officers, particularly in connection with brain injury and adverse mental health,” says Nick Smith, graduate research assistant at the University of Exeter.

Williams and Smith were surprised how many officers reported having a brain injury, although they expected there to be a relationship between TBI and adverse mental health.

We found that, when officers have a mild brain injury, where they were assaulted or in a car accident, they could have PTSD. When they have this with head injury it can be long lasting, and they can exacerbate each other,” says Williams.

“Despite being a relatively small group, the findings were robust enough to say head injury, in the mix with PTSD, depression and drinking to cope, might lead to negative long-term outcomes,” says Williams.

The findings, the researchers argue, highlights a need to tackle TBI and the consequences of post-concussion syndrome, which can cause irritably, poor concentration and memory issues.

The paper states that exploring TBI in the police could, identify a major factor contributing towards ongoing mental health difficulties in a population where, based on previous research, the implications of TBI should not be overlooked.’

“If it’s not properly treated, it could lead to greater absence from work, so it’s reasonable for police forces to pick up on these issues to mitigate risk of long term sickness,” says Williams.

“Otherwise, I can see it snowballing – chronic stresses increase over time and the weight of negative experiences become harder to carry.

“This leads us to think we need a better system in place to identify TBI, an alert system to allow people come back into operations or situations in a way that’s healthy so they’re not exposed to more risk,” Williams says.

In sports, for example, the protocol following a concussion is much clearer, Williams says, and helps to lower a player’s risk of having a second concussion while recovering from the first.

“England Rugby does a great job with concussion management protocols, they identify the problem then do something about it, ensuring people are in the right mindset to be doing a very demanding job,” Williams says.

Increased awareness of TBI in the police would be a natural progression from being aware of prisoners with TBIs, says Williams.

“I’ve worked in prisons looking at how common head injury is in people who end up in prison, and various police forces became interested in working with us in a trauma-informed manner, taking on a more broad view of the vulnerabilities of people they’re working with.

“But working from this perspective involves understanding trauma of people who provide services as well,” he says. “Sixty, 70 percent of the time, police are trying to manage and look after vulnerable people. It’s important to recognise how they can become vulnerable themselves.”

There needs to be a system and trauma-informed principles in place for police officers to manage their own vulnerability, Williams says – and he’s hopeful this will happen in the future.

“Initial conversations with forces indicate a healthy attitude towards trying to improve how can improve psychological wellbeing,” he says.

But this isn’t just up to forces themselves. It’s also important, Smith adds, to lessen divide between police and public.

“Police need help like us – it’s important to understand how trauma might affect them.”

Williams says police are often portrayed negatively in the media, and it’s important that the public is aware of why they make the decisions they make and the laws they have that could lead to them suffering trauma. 

PTSD, he says, is more likely to occur when officers don’t feel like society is backing them and the public doesn’t understand why they do what they do.

“It’s important for police to be understood as operating as people for people,” Williams says.

This will also require efforts from across probation, healthcare and education, Williams says, to better understand people from different backgrounds and how to build up empathy across society and reduce violence, as well as educating on the importance of identifying brain injuries when they occur.

Ultimately, Williams is hopeful that police forces want to give officers better protection from the consequences of TBI.

“Police officers need to think about myriad factors at same time, and we want them to be optimum capacity to do that,” Williams says.

This study was a pilot, and Smith hopes to do a much larger study in other police forces across the UK that controls for PTSD and depression to see if increases in post-concussion syndrome are due to head injury and not any other factors.

The first step, Smith says, is finding out the rate of TBI in the police force, then developing a tool to measure and monitor brain injury over time. The research, he says, will be done to help rehabilitate people with TBI, with the aim to help police understand the people they’re meeting, and vice versa.

Williams argues that this work is very relevant to public protection, and it’s important it continues.

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How two community services are making tentative steps to normality

As pandemic restrictions lift, brain injury services are starting to come back out of hibernation. Jessica Brown speaks to two Headway groups across the country to see how they’re resuming support offline.

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In Portsmouth, the local Headway has had a difficult time in recent months. Two service users have died from Covid-19, and another has been sectioned and taken to a secure facility after their mental health took a downturn.

There’s been a huge spike in mental health problems, and a few service users, who wouldn’t have done so under normal circumstances, have got in trouble with the police.

Most service users are gradually building their contact with the outside world again, with Headway’s help.

When lockdown began in March, service manager Deborah Robinson decided the best course of action was to identify the most vulnerable users and make sure she and her team maintained regular contact with them. The next challenge was gradually exposing them to more contact as restrictions began to ease.

“We regard it as a graduation – first is phone contact, then sitting in the garden with them, then inviting them on a walk once they’ve got confident enough to come out of their homes with us, then eventually we’ll suggest they come to a session with the group,” she says.

“Some people are too frail or anxious, so they won’t come out,” she says, “So we’ll have to carry on popping in to see them.”

This approach has proven particularly helpful in some ways, Robinson says. Before the virus, staff members hoped service users would speak up in sessions when they had a problem, but visiting people at home has allowed staff and volunteers to pick up on issues faster and get to know them better.

“One staff member met a service user in his garden, and noticed that the recycling bin was overflowing with alcohol. We knew he’d been a drinker in the past, so the staff member talked to him about his drinking, teasing information out,” Robinson says.

“He said he was drinking a lot, so we’ve been able to put in place goals to help him cut down on his drinking and put him in touch with AA, as well as various other things to help with a problem that reared its head in lockdown.”

Employees and volunteers, she adds, are also getting better at texting group members and touching base.

“It’s a mix of phoning people regularly and picking up the ones where there are issues. We’re getting more adept at that because it wasn’t something we did, and we’ve also picked up almost everyone’s carers because we’ve been talking to them to hear their concerns, too.”

Forty miles west in Salisbury, Headway arranged Zoom groups every week, but recognised that this option wasn’t suited to everyone.

“We were conscious to get actual face-to-face contact again, so as the guidelines have changed, we’ve thought about how we can work with that,” says Sarah Allen, service manager.

In recent weeks, online groups have continued, but staff members have started arranging small group meet-ups in various locations, including the outdoor café at Salisbury Museum, which Allen says provided a good learning opportunity.

One of Robinson’s major concerns in Portsmouth is how service users will react when they see other people not wearing masks or standing too close, and are told they have to adhere to guidelines themselves.

Allen, however, hopes meeting up in public places will help service users slowly accustom to these new ways of life.

“Some people coming to the groups haven’t been outside during the pandemic because all their activities have stopped, so it’s really important to model social distancing and hygiene behaviours,” Allen says.

“Somewhere like an outdoor café has been really useful because it’s about giving group members social contact in a setting where they can see people all around them modelling social distancing, staff wearing face masks and putting on hand sanitiser,” she says. “Then, when group members do go out and about more, it’ll be more familiar for them.”

In recent weeks, groups in Salisbury have also met up in a park, where they were able to socially distance.

Allen says coming out of lockdown and resuming services has been a learning curve for her, and she is realising that it’s sometimes more beneficial to have smaller groups than the maximum allowed by government guidelines. 

She knows she will have to continue to adapt in unknown ways as government guidelines change.

But the future remains uncertain. Headway Salisbury doesn’t have its own centre, so rents community rooms to host sessions instead – and none have reopened yet. Allen plans on continuing outdoor activities for as long as possible, but is uncertain of what will happen as temperatures cool.

“Going into autumn and winter poses a new challenge,” she says. “I’m not sure how we’re going to meet if the government guidelines if the maximum number of people who can meet indoors stays the same,” she says.

Meanwhile in Portsmouth, premises have been locked up for the duration of lockdown. Robinson has seen an increase in demand for services, so as things resume back to pre-Covid 19, she says here’s a lot of thinking to be done about how the service is going to expand to accommodate increased need. She anticipates the service will need to expand by a third.

Both Portsmouth and Salisbury Headway services adapted quickly when the lockdown came in March. Adapting back to how things were before looks like it will be a longer, more difficult path – but while Allen and Robinson have faced slightly different challenges over the last few months, there’s no doubt they’ve both found silver linings in the challenges thrown at them so far.

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