Former footballers are approximately three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population, according to a new study.
The report, released on Monday and commissioned by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association, assessed the medical records of 7,676 men who played professional football in Scotland between 1900 and 1976.
Their records were matched against more than 23,000 individuals from the general population, with the study led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University.
Former Liverpool player and manager Bob Paisley died from Alzheimers in 1996
His findings report that the ‘risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls’.
The research follows a previous study by the two football bodies that was launched shortly before an inquest in 2002 ruled that former West Brom and England player Jeff Astle had died from an ‘industrial disease’ caused by repetitive blows to the head.
Astle is just one example of many high-profile footballers that have died from degenerative brain diseases.
Liverpool icon Bob Paisley, who spent 45 years at the club in various capacities, winning six league titles and three European Cups as a manager, died in 1996 in a Merseyside nursing home four years after first displaying symptoms of Alzheimers.
HOW DID ENGLAND STRIKER JEFF ASTLE DIE? INQUEST REVEALS HE SUFFERED CTE FROM HEADING LEATHER FOOTBALLS
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle (right) died in 2002.
He was only 59 but doctors said he had the brain of a 90-year-old after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals with a history of head injury, often as a result of multiple concussions.
An inquest ruled Astle died from dementia caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.
Astle, who was left unable to recognise his own children, once commented that heading a football was like heading ‘a bag of bricks’.
His family set up the Jeff Astle Foundation in 2015 in order to raise awareness of brain injury in sport. His daughter Dawn said ‘the game that he lived for killed him’.
Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham Hotspur during their double winning season of 1961, died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in 1993. He was 67.
His death has also been linked to heading the heavy, leather balls of the 1940s and 50s, along with fellow Tottenham players Dave Mackay, Peter Baker and Ron Henry.
The Jeff Astle gates outside West Brom’s Hawthorns stadium: Astle died from dementia, a disease that was ruled to have been caused by repetitively heading leather footballs
HOW CAN PLAYING FOOTBALL LEAD TO DEMENTIA?
Footballers suffer repeated blows to their head, mainly through heading leather footballs and colliding with other players.
Leading scientists have found such injuries can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a crippling condition which can cause dementia.
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002, aged 59, from CTE. He was left unable to recognise his own children.
An inquest ruled that Astle’s CTE was caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.
Three of the nine surviving members of England’s 1966 winning World Cup team have Alzheimer’s – Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson.
Stiles’ son two years ago criticised the FA for failing to properly investigate a link between the sport and degenerative brain disease.
A landmark study of 14 retired footballers by University College London experts in 2017 found four had a condition CTE.
The link between head trauma and CTE is widely established in boxing, rugby and American football, where such injuries are common.
Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez had CTE when he killed himself in April at the age of 27 while serving a life sentence for murder.
At the time of the 50-year anniversary of England winning the World Cup in 1966, half of England’s surviving outfield players were also suffering from dementia or memory loss.
In response to the research, titled ‘Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk’, or FIELD for short, FA chairman Greg Clarke said in a statement: ‘This is the most comprehensive study ever commissioned into neurodegenerative disease in former professional footballers. We welcome its findings and thank Dr Willie Stewart for diligently leading this important research.
‘The whole game must recognise that this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered. It is important that the global football family now unites to find the answers and provide a greater understanding of this complex issue. The FA is committed to doing all it can to make that happen.’
PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said: ‘These findings are a matter of considerable importance to our members. We are grateful to Dr Willie Stewart and his team for their work.
‘The PFA co-funded FIELD, alongside the FA. It is now incumbent on football globally to come together to address this issue in a comprehensive and united manner. Research must continue to answer more specific questions about what needs to be done to identify and reduce risk factors.
‘Our members’ well-being is of paramount importance to us, and we are committed to representing their voice as this conversation opens up across football’s stakeholders.’
Former England captain Alan Shearer admitted in 2017 he fears he may be at risk of suffering from dementia due to heading footballs 100 times a day during his career.
Shearer underwent tests to examine how heading the ball has affected his brain as part as part of a TV documentary.
The FA said in a statement: ‘The study does not determine whether the cause is due to concussions suffered by the group of professional footballers, or concussion management, or heading of the football, or style of play, or the design and composition of footballs over the years, or personal lifestyle, or some other factor.’
Alan Shearer underwent tests on his brain as part of a documentary on the risks of dementia associated with the long-term effects of heading footballs in 2017
The governing body said the study’s findings had been reviewed by an independent Medical and Football Advisory Group, which recommended re-issuing the current FA concussion guidelines and best-practice advice for coaching heading and called for further steps to improve head injury management, like supporting UEFA’s proposals to introduce concussion substitutes.
The group said more research was needed and there was ‘not enough evidence at this stage to make other changes to the way the modern-day game is played’.
The FA said it was not important to try and establish ‘whether or not the results from this historic group of former professional footballers relates, in any way, to the modern-day professional footballer’.
It said it had written to FIFA and UEFA to offer its full support on future research in this area as well as share the findings of the study with them.
Reacting, Dr Carol Routledge, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, called the study ‘well-conducted’ but said there was ‘a pressing need for further high-quality research’ to discover what aspects of players’ lives on and off the pitch was behind the increased risk.
She added: ‘The study focused on former professional football players and doesn’t tell us anything about whether the modern professional or grassroots game should change or how. With football close to the hearts of so many of us, football associations across the world must take the findings seriously and review emerging evidence to ensure players can enjoy the game safely at all levels.’