The media has been awash with different headlines about the risk of dementia and football.
This is after new landmark research reported that former professional football players were more likely to die from dementia than their age mates in the general population.
Major head injuries have been known to increase the risk of developing dementia later in life.
A blow to the head that results in loss of consciousness may cause some changes in the brain. These may cause dementia development later on.
Scientists have calculated that a football which weighs about half a kilo can strike a player on the head at a speed of 128km/h.
When the ball hits the head, there is a possibility that the brain that floats in the skull cavity will be injured as it bounces against the back wall of the skull.
While a single header may not cause significant damage, repeatedly doing this for an extended period may cause problems.
Football and dementia risk
Researchers from Glasgow University spearheaded investigations on the claims that brain injuries were linked to heading a ball.
This was after Jeff Astle, former West Brom striker, lost his life because of repeated head trauma. Look into the details of this study below.
Participants of the Study
The study is an attempt to explain the link between dementia and football. It compared the deaths of ex-football players and those from the general population.
The participants involved 23,000 people from the general population and 7, 676 former players who were born between 1900 and 1976 and had played professional football in Scotland. The study began in 2018 and went on for 22 months.
It was commissioned by the Professional Footballer’s Association and the Football Association.
Results of the Study
Data from the study were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The findings revealed that former footballers had higher dementia rates. According to this study, the former players were 3 1/2 times more likely to develop dementia than the general population.
The analysis also concluded that there was a 5-fold risk increase in Alzheimer’s risk, a 4-fold increase in risk relating to Motor Neurone Disease, and a 2-fold increase in Parkinson’s disease risk.
Additionally, the study also found that ex-footballers were almost 5 times more likely to be on prescribed dementia drugs.
Dr. Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist and one of the leaders of the study, also stated that while ex-football players had higher rates of dementia, they had lower death rates caused by other major diseases like heart diseases or some cancers.
The research confirmed that being active and playing football helped to reduce the risk of these serious illnesses.
This implies that former football stars lived for about three more years on average than a matched group from the general population.
Consequences of the Study
After the results of the study focusing on dementia and football, there were some ramifications. Among these include the fact that the UK and the USA banned kids from heading ball while playing football.
In the UK, the decision mostly affects children in primary school up to the age of 12. Football associations altered guidance on the skill to recommend a graduated approach to head for those ages between 12 and 16 years during training sessions.
The US, on the other hand, banned heading for children aged ten years and younger.
The country also placed limits for kids between the ages of 11-13. Currently, there is no ban on heading for football matches because the number of headers is limited.
While researchers did not state that heading a football was the cause of increased dementia risk, the guidelines were updated to mitigate against potential risk, according to the FA.
The family of Jeff Astle who lost his life in 2002 and over 400 families of players with dementia have come together to demand urgent action. Supported by medical experts, they are calling for:
1. A government inquiry on why warnings about dementia and football were not acted upon swiftly.
2. Practical help and care funds to be made available to the families of suffering players.
3. New concussion protocols that will put football in line with the other sports and the facilitation of temporary substitutes.
4. A review of other ways football can be made safer both in matches and in training.
The results of the study trying to identify the link between dementia and football have led to the launch of new research. Two studies have already been launched to look at the changes that happen to the brains of professional footballers as they grow older.
The results of this can help people to get a better understanding of the long-term effects of heading the ball and playing football.
One of the studies is being conducted by The University of East Anglia. The study that began early 2020 will see researchers use technology to test former professional footballers for early dementia signs.
It will explore when players may start showing these signs. Participants of the study will involve both men and women.
The other study is looking at about 300 ex-professional footballers.
The researchers are seeking to gather detailed information about the players, including mental and physical function, various lifestyle factors, and history of heading into football in addition to assessing changes in their brain. The study is receiving funding from The Drake Foundation.
Shortcomings of the Study
The findings of the study did not present enough evidence that could cause changes in how football is played.
In a statement, the FA stated that the study does not explain whether it is concussions, concussion management, style of play, heading of the football, the composition or design of football or even lifestyle or other factors that lead to the increase in dementia risk.
Further research still needs to be conducted on the link between football and dementia risk.
This will answer many questions concerning dementia and football and perhaps help to identify and reduce risk factors.