Behind the headlines: Signs of dementia found in the brains of football players

So far there isn't evidence to know whether head injuries that occur during football, such as when heading a ball, are linked to an increased dementia risk.

Dementia and football players​

There have been reports today (Feb 15) that signs of dementia have been found in the brains of a small number of former footballers.

Four of the footballers studied had signs of a form of dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has previously been linked to head injuries sustained during collision sports such as boxing and American football.

So far there is not enough evidence to know whether head injuries that occur during football, such as when heading the ball, are linked to an increased risk of dementia.

What did the research show?

The study involved 14 former footballers with memory problems who were identified by the Old Age Psychiatry Service in Swansea, Wales.

The researchers gathered clinical information about the footballers, including the number of head injuries they sustained that resulted in a concussion.

The brains of six of those footballers were examined by the researchers after they passed away. It was found that four of the people examined had signs of a form of dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). All six of them also had signs that indicated the presence of Alzheimer’s disease.

What do these results mean?

Whilst the study showed evidence of dementia in the brains of former footballers, the results do not prove that head injuries sustained during football lead to an increased risk of dementia.

Perhaps the most important question to answer is whether footballers are at a greater risk of dementia than the general population. This study can’t answer that question, but a few small studies have looked at the evidence and found that footballers do not appear to be to have a higher risk of dementia.

It is also important to note that the number of people studied was very small. In order to make informed conclusions, we need to see data from a large number of people – preferably hundreds. 

Another point is that the study presented today also only looked at the brains of footballers who had memory problems.

We need to compare these results with those from footballers who did not have memory problems in order to understand the differences between these two groups.

Dementia and football players​

There is also a large amount of essential information that is missing from this study. We do not know anything about the footballers’ genetics, or detailed aspects of their lifestyle.

These factors are both known to influence a person’s risk of dementia. Without this knowledge, it is hard to unpick whether head injury could have contributed towards the dementia that these players experienced.

Other issues that need to be taken into account include whether there is a difference between using older, heavy leather footballs and modern, lighter footballs. The person’s age when they first start playing may also be a factor in how their brains respond to injury.

The type of injury also needs to be taken into account – whether it is heading the ball that is the main cause of injury or whether it is due to other collisions that occur during the game. We also need to account for other injuries sustained outside of the sport.

What will happen now?

It is clear that the link between playing football and dementia requires further investigation. The issues outlined above will all need to be addressed before we can make any conclusions regarding football and dementia.

There is a long road ahead though, with barriers in areas like funding, resources and finding participants to take part in research that will need to be overcome.

What does this mean for people who currently play football?

There is currently not enough evidence to be able to give any advice surrounding playing football and risk of dementia.

Evidence shows that exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia, and it is important that everyone playing any kind of sport can do so safely.

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When I was a boy growing up in Port Glasgow in the 1950s my GP played professional football with Glasgow Rangers and latterly Greenock Morton. During his playing career he refused to head the ball citing his medical training. In those days the ball was made of leather and would become heavier in rain. Perhaps he was far-sighted given what we now hear.

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