The University of Glasgow’s Brain Injury Group research project has revealed that the former professional football players are three and half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases.
A report published by The Guardian stated that this 22-month research project, which , also went on to discover that there remained a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a five-fold increase in the Alzheimer’s risk.
The report though was not able to establish whether repeated concussions, heading leather footballs, or some other factor cause the higher levels of brain disease. The Football Association, who helped funding the research, however said that they would set up a task force in order to examine the possible causes in detail.
West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle had died in 2002 and the coroner had said that it was an “industrial disease” which was partly caused by heading heavy footballs during his career. His family said that it was shocked at the scale of this problem.
“My overall feeling is that I am staggered even though my own research and instinct was always that there was a serious problem,” Dawn Astle, Jeff Astle’s daughter, said.
She was contacted by more than 400 families of former players with dementia.
“There will be no celebrations. We knew dad could not be the only one. We just wanted that question answered. We just wanted to see that football cared enough to find out the scale of the problem, to do the right thing and be there for these people when they need them most. Whatever they do next, it must be across all parts of the game. And these players who have suffered dementia must not be a statistic – they must never be forgotten,” she added.
The study used the recently digitised data of the NHS Scotland to compare the causes of death of 7,676 ex-male professional players, born between the time period of 1900 to 1976, against those of more than 23,000 from the general population.
However, despite the study, there was not yet enough evidence to change any aspect of football, the FA confirmed.
“Our research shows the number of aerial challenges has already been reduced significantly over the years as we have changed to smaller pitches and possession-based football,” said Marc Bullingham, the FA chief executive.
“However, as new evidence comes to light, we will continue to monitor and reassess all aspects of the game,” he added.
As per the data from Opta, which backs up Bullingham’s assessment, the high crosses in the Premier League have declined. They were 38.2 per game in the season of 2008-09 and have come down to a low of 24.2 in the last season.
The research, though, will continue to mount pressure on the International Football Association board, which is scheduled to meet to in Zurich on Wednesday, to allow “concussion substitutes” if a player is assessed for a head injury during a match.
The slow response of the Professional Footballers’ Association, meanwhile, to the dementia problem over the past decade has not gone down well with many former footballers and doctors.
Chris Sutton, son of Mike Sutton – a former Norwich player – who suffered from dementia, has called for an apology from PFA.
“If Gordon Taylor had anything about him he would apologise to all his union members and their families who he has failed … his own members dying in the most horrible and humiliating way … he failed my dad and hundreds more,” Chris Sutton tweeted.
Bobby Barnes, deputy chief executive of the PFA, though said that the PFA now better understands the scale of the problem and five members of the organisation had agreed to donating their brains to medical research after their death.
The University of Glasgow’s research also said that the former footballers were less likely to suffer death due to other problems such as heart disease and some cancers and went on to live on average three and a quarter years longer.
The director of research of Alzheimer’s UK, Dr Carol Routledge, meanwhile, opined that the playing football has more benefits than disadvantages.
“Dementia is caused by complex brain diseases and our risk is influenced by our genes, lifestyle and health,” said Dr Routledge.
“The best evidence suggests that good heart health is the best way to keep the brain healthy, so when played safely, a kickaround with friends is still a great way to stay mentally and physically active,” she added.