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Heading footballs 'may increase dementia risk'

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
girl heading football

15th February 2017 – Footballers who repeatedly head the ball may be increasing their risk of dementia later in life, according to scientists.

The study, published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, adds to growing interest in the long-term effects of brain injury from contact sports.

Post mortems

The brains of 6 of 14 retired players underwent post-mortem examinations and 4 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a potential cause of dementia caused by repeated blows to the head. All 6 had signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Of the 14 players involved in the research, 13 were former professionals and one was a committed amateur who played every season for 23 years. None of the players have been identified.

All the footballers were diagnosed with dementia between 1980 and 2010. They were referred to the Old Age Psychiatry Service in Swansea run by consultant psychiatrist Dr Don Williams. He monitored the former players regularly and collected evidence about their condition and history of concussion from close relatives.

Quarter century's play

He found that all the footballers had begun playing and heading the ball in their childhood or early teens and had continued to play regularly for an average of 26 years. Only 6 of them had experienced concussion and loss of consciousness while playing the game, and this was limited to a single experience each during their playing career.

Permission was given by next-of-kin of 6 of the former players to perform post-mortem examinations. These analyses were carried out by researchers from University College London (UCL) and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

The researchers say that the rate of CTE identified in the players' brains exceeds the 12% average rate found in a previous survey of 268 brains of people from the general population.

Professor John Hardy, a neurological disease specialist from UCL, says the rate in their sample of former footballers was much higher. "When we have looked in general at Alzheimer's disease, the rate of CTE is much less," he tells us. "We would only have expected to either get none or one."

Leather footballs

All the 14 players involved in the study were involved in the game in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s when a heavier leather football was in use. However, Professor Hardy says footballers in the modern era may still be at risk: "Today's players are more athletic, and I think the lighter ball is kicked harder and so it's not clear that it's less impact."

The study was funded by The Drake Foundation, which is calling for further research to improve understanding of sports-related head injuries and their long-term implications.

'Families deserve answers'

Peter McCabe, chief executive of the brain injury association, Headway, says: "We have known for some time that there is a link between the cumulative effect of repeated blows to the head – such as those suffered by boxers – and degenerative neurological conditions such as dementia.

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