Ex-players take part in study to help athletes at risk of dementia due to heading balls

More than 100 ex-pro footballers are being recruited to a landmark study to see what can be done to help players at greater risk of dementia due to heading balls.

Former Premier League stars aged 40 to 60 could be among players being called upon to sign up for regular brain scans and thinking tests.

The four year study will identify signs of mental decline and conduct management of known dementia risk factors designed to try to reduce their chances of developing the devastating disease.

The £1.3 million BrainHOPE study funded by the FA and FIFA is led by pioneering brain scientist Prof Willie Stewart of the University of Glasgow.

A study found that footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to develop dementia
Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF)

His earlier FIELD Study in 2019 confirmed for the first time that footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to go on to develop dementia.

Prof Stewart said: “This is an incredibly important study, and we are grateful to the FA and FIFA for their support to allow it to proceed.

“Our findings from the FIELD study show there is reason to worry about lifelong brain health in former footballers. BrainHOPE is designed to identify tests that might detect problems early on and, more importantly, possible ways to try and reduce dementia risk for former footballers.”

Players such as Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan, Viv Anderson, Graeme Souness, Emile Heskey, Matt Le Tissier and Terry Butcher have all voiced their own concerns about the impact of years of heading balls.

Peter Crouch

Peter Crouch said he worries about dementia
BT Sport YouTube)

Ex England striker Peter Crouch – who holds the Guinness World Record for the most headed goals in the Premier League – revealed he is terrified of getting dementia.

The 6ft 7in-tall former Spurs and Liverpool striker said: “I worry about dementia. I headed more balls than anyone in Europe for five or six years. So if anyone is going to struggle, it will be me.”

England legend Jimmy Greaves lost his battle with dementia last year and followed several other members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad to die from the disease.

The new research, working with Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh, will recruit 120 former professional footballers to compare against 700 general population controls.

Jimmy Greaves

Jimmy Greaves lost his battle with dementia last year

Jimmy Greaves

He played as a forward

They will receive support dealing with known dementia risk factors such as diet, smoking and sedentary lifestyles. Researchers will also look at health factors which may also increase their risk such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Charlotte Cowie, head of performance medicine at the Football Association, said: “The launch of the BrainHope study is another important step in building our understanding of the long-term health of former professional footballers.

“Forming part of the wider Prevent Dementia study, this research will help us further understand the links between the game and neurodegenerative diseases and also potential early interventions which could help reduce risk or speed of developing dementia.”

Researchers first began to look seriously at the potential link between dementia and football following the death of former West Bromwich Albion and England striker Jeff Astle in 2002 at the age of 59.

It was initially believed Astle died from Alzheimer’s disease, but the coroner at his inquest ruled his brain had been damaged by heading heavy leather balls.

In 2014 Prof Stewart, consultant neuropathologist, carried out a new examination of his brain and found he was killed by a specific pathology linked to brain injury exposure, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Dementia claimed the lives of 66’ hero Ray Wilson in 2018, Martin Peters in 2019 and then Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles in 2020. Sir Bobby Charlton has also been diagnosed with dementia.

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