Dementia and Football

Before Alan Shearer’s evocative dementia documentary aired on the BBC, worldwide studies had already begun to list brain damage as a devastating hazard of playing professional football.

When scientists at University College London (UCL) and Cardiff University discovered – through the post-mortems of six ex-players – all of them had suffered the same tearing to the brain membrane… the pressure on the football industry intensified.

Five of the players had played professionally their entire lives while one was a long-term amateur player, but dementia in their 60s was something they all had in common.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – described by the NHS as ‘a type of dementia associated with repeated blows to the head and recurrent episodes of concussion’ – was also found in four of the six men.

It was the first time such brain damage had been confirmed in retired footballers.

Speaking to the Independent in February, Dr Helen Ling, from UCL’s Institute of Neurology, said: “Our findings of CTE in retired footballers suggest a potential link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain pathologies in later life.

“However, it’s important to note we only studied a small number of retired footballers with dementia and we still don’t know how common dementia is among footballers.”

Although the researchers acknowledged other factors could have contributed to their brain damage, the anecdotal evidence continues to flood in.

Since Dementia, Football and Me aired this month, it was reported that hundreds of distraught families of ex-players have contacted Jeff Astle’s daughter with their stories in the 15 years since his death.

Jeff, a former West Bromwich and England player, died young at 59-years-old, not remembering he was a legendary athlete.

Despite a coroner having ruled that regularly heading heavy footballs was a significant contributor to his death, his family feel let down by both the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association.

Comments like Ireland manager Roy Keane’s are a kick in the teeth for grieving families and those suffering after years of contact sports including rugby, boxing and martial arts.

Keane, notable Manchester United ex-manager, criticised the athlete’s concerns after Kevin Doyle retired from the game, blighted by persistent headaches.

Keane said: “If you’re worried about the physical side of any sport – and you’re wary of it – then play chess.

“It’s part of the game.”

To some extent, there is truth in his words.

Experts, including those from Alzheimer’s UK, are not calling for people to stop playing Britain’s most popular sport.

Instead they want to see: more rigorous research to aid prevention and understanding; for all head injuries, regardless of how minor, to be recorded on one’s medical records; and greater engagement with current and retired professional athletes.

News that the Drake Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to scientific research into sports-related concussion, is ploughing a further £1million into studies, could not have come at a better time.

It might take decades until the final strokes are added to the painting, so to speak, but it is unlikely the noise will stop for now.