Football and dementia risk - is there a link?

News that professional footballers might be at a greater risk of dementia, and why that might be the case, has been the subject of great debate and interest. Our researchers examine the latest evidence around heading the ball and discuss what we know so far.

Head impacts that occur during football, such as when heading a ball, and dementia risk has received a lot of media attention, including a BBC documentary presented by former England striker Alan Shearer.


For some time there has been speculation about the role of head injuries and risk of dementia, especially if it results in a long period of unconsciousness.

A small study in early 2017 was among the first to show a greater risk of dementia in professional footballers. Researchers studied the brains of former footballers with memory problems. They found that most had signs of a form of dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and all had signs of Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is important to note that footballers without memory problems were not studied.

Since then, a longer and larger study has provided further evidence for a link between professional football and a greater risk of dementia. This has led to responses from the Football Association, and the announcement of two new research studies. 

What does the latest research on professional football players and dementia show?

In October 2019, a study led by the University of Glasgow also found a link between professional football players and dementia.

Researchers compared the causes of death of 7,676 former Scottish male professional football players born between 1900 and 1976 against over 230,000 matched individuals from the general population. 

The study revealed that former professional football players had an approximately three and a half times higher rate of death due to neurodegenerative disease than expected. However, this study did not tell us why that might be the case.  

What do the results mean?

This has been the longest and largest study to date. The results provide valuable insight into the increased risk of dementia among football players. They also build on the findings from the 2017 research. Yet, there are still a few unanswered questions. 

The researchers only looked at professional football players. It is therefore not clear whether playing football at an amateur level increases the risk of dementia. 

The study also does not explain why professional football might increase someone’s risk of dementia or whether heading the ball is involved. Further studies looking at the changes that occur in the brain could provide insight into this.

The type of injury as well as other lifestyle factors need to be considered. It is unclear whether this increased risk of dementia is a result of heading the ball, a result of other collisions during the game or another factor. 

Football boots

What has been the outcome of this research?

As a result of this study, the Football Association has released new guidelines advising children aged 11 and under should no longer be taught to head footballs in training. The guidelines, which don't extent to competitive matches, also add more restrictions to the amount of heading done by under-18 players.

The guidlines were revealed in a joint statement between the FA, Scottish FA and Irish FA.

It is clear that the evidence is growing for a link between playing football and dementia. New research, announced recently, will help us understand why that appears to be the case.

What new research is going on?

Two new studies have recently been launched. These will both look at the changes that occur in the brains of professional footballers as they get older. This research is promising, as it could help us understand the long-term effects of playing football and heading the ball.  

The Drake Foundation are funding one study, which will look at around 300 former professional football players. As well as assessing changes in the brain, the researchers will gather detailed information about the players. This will include their history of heading in football, different lifestyle factors, and physical and mental function.

At the beginning of 2020, the University of East Anglia also launched a new project. They will use cutting-edge technology to test for early signs of dementia in former professional footballers. Unlike the previous studies, the researchers will look at both male and female professional footballers. It is also the first to explore when players may start showing signs of dementia.

Should I be worried about playing football?

It’s very rare for dementia to be caused by a single factor. Although evidence of a link between playing football and dementia has increased, the studies so far have not considered all these other factors.  

It is also important to remember that the studies so far have been in professional footballers. We encourage taking care when it comes to noticing and recording head injuries. However, there is not enough evidence to give advice about whether playing football at an amateur level may affect your risk of dementia.

Evidence does show that exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia. We encourage everyone to enjoy any kind of sport as safely as possible. 

How to reduce your risk of dementia

Although getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, evidence shows there are things you can do to help reduce your own risk. 

Reduce your risk


I’ve got health anxiety and played amateur football since I can remember, now really worried I’ll develop dementia. Would there have been a higher risk of dementia from heading the heavy leather balls rather than the ones that are played with today?

Hi Jamie,

Thank you for reaching out to us.

It’s important to note that the studies so far have been in professional rugby players and footballers and at this stage there is no research to show playing football at a more casual level puts you at an increased risk of developing dementia.

Meanwhile, exercise generally is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing dementia, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

However, we welcome guidance to limit heading across all levels in football training sessions where most heading take place and limiting higher force heading as a precautionary step forward. 

We hope this helps.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

My husband played football into his 40's semi professional, he was born in 1946, he is now 75. His behaviour is getting odd, like looking in cupboards for someone hiding in there at night, and constantly shutting all doors in the house, he has no motivation, and is now in serious, serious money problems.
As far as he is concerned everything is fine and he would be most cross if I said anything about seeing anyone, I really don't know what to do and feel extremely worried, surely this is not just old age, he was such a switched on man.

Hi there,

We're very sorry to hear about your husband and how worried you are. Please know that you're not alone, and we are here for you.

We'd recommend calling our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456 to speak to one of our trained dementia advisers. They can listen to you, find out a bit more about your situation and provide specific information, support and advice. More details about the support line (including opening hours) are available here:

You might also find it helpful to talk to others who have been or are in similar situations, in our online community, Talking Point. Here, carers and other people affected by dementia share experiences, advice and offer support. You can browse the community or sign up for free here:…

We hope this helps. Please do call our support line if you need someone to talk to.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

My father is 85 in October he played professionally initially and continued until 35 years of age. He tells me he can remember special details from games circa 1955-65 name the teams and replay games, crowd attendances. He now forgets what he and I discussed between an hour and a few days ago. Many of his POSH player friends have died or are diagnosed with dementia. What research charities are there set up to investigate this have been established ? If anyone can let me know please

Hello Dale,

Thanks for your comment. We are sorry to hear your Dad is struggling with his memory. If you would like support or advice, we suggest calling our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456. More details about the support line (including opening hours) are available here:

Regarding research, more evidence is needed to see if there is a true link between extensively playing contact sports such as rugby and football earlier in life and the development of dementia.

We are currently funding the PREVENT study, which studies people in mid-life to identify factors that could increase the risk of developing dementia. You can read about this study here:…

One arm of this study specifically focuses on sports players in order to see if those who may have experienced extensive and repetitive head impacts through playing are at an increased risk. You can read about this here:…

At the minute, rugby players are being studied, and a small pilot for footballers is also going ahead. We will update our website as results from this study are published, but you can read more about it here:…

We hope this helps, Dale. Please do call our support line if you want any further advice.

Alzheimer's Society research team

My husband aged 59 is currently being assessed for Dementia. His recent assessment gave him a score of 67 out of 100. He played Amateur and Junior football from age 8 to 37. It's not only professional footballers at risk.

My dad was a keen footballer played a lot and developed vascular and frontal lobe dementia he died in 2020 age 82 he played in the era of leather footballs and football boots were also more solid

More and more people are being diagnosed with Dementia. My mother died of it at 85. Can’t really be sure if it’s onset. There may have been signs at just over 75 but it’s such an invidious disease. As more people are living longer, this disease is exploding. It’s not just Footballers or Rugby players. HAS it been absolutely proven that heading abs or head collisions in Rugby are direct contributors? I’m not doubting it. I’m just questioning, therefore, how SOME ordinary citizens get it. What is the mechanism? How come vascular and how come senile? What’s the difference and how and why is one more prevalent than the other. If Football helps to bring more focus on this disease then great but let’s please ensure that the causes within the wider population are investigated and interrogated as minutely.

My Mum NEVER headed a football - so WHY did she die from dementia? I feel that these people who are blaming football for their loved ones dementia, really should think of the disrespect THEY are showing to ALL dementia sufferers who have NEVER even touched a football. In

Beverley, my mother died of vascular dementia too. Altzheimers /dementia is a huge growing problem in society that is living longer. I don’t think anyone is disrespecting those who didn’t play football but I DO think that the issue is being overtaken by the football/rugby link. I’d like to see the data for the overall numbers. All dementia sufferers and age of onset compared to different categories of cases. The research has to focus on the root causes. Why do some get it and some don’t. Football and rugby should just be an adjunct.

It's not saying that all cases of Dementia are caused by football. But that by playing football there is a possible risk between heading the ball and Dementia. Risk factors - same as age, smoking, diabetes all risk factors but not a stand alone cause.

My father played for Portsmouth mainly, professional for nearly 20 years. During his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s it came to light that 3 others in his team also had it. They all died tragic deaths and suffered for a game they loved.

Lorraine, my dad also played football for Bournemouth and yes it was in the days of the leather balls. He died from Frontal Lobe consistent with heading the ball and concussion. Nearly everybody he played with in his team during the late 40’s - 50’s have all passed from FLD. Unfortunately his symptoms were aggressiveness, insecurity, loss of trust feelings, forgetfulness after the end of his playing career. He never acknowledged any of it.


My brother has recently been diagnosed with alzheimer's. He played football in the lower leagues for Salisbury Wiltshire. Perhaps focus should be put on these players as well as the professional players. He used to head the ball then.
Thank you.

My Father played football his entire life. He was born in 1917. He was always heading a heavy leather ball. He coached youngster in the 1960/1970’s . He was an accountant and very intelligent.
He died 22 years ago of Dementia. Unrecognisable of his former life.

My Father played professional football for Norwich City for 5 years.He died in 2003 of Dementia,I believe it was caused by heading the old leather football,one of which I have,it’s heavy when dry,but unbelievably heavy when wet.
The F.A. are dragging their heals in looking into this.

My father played for Airdrie and Tranmere in the 50s. Died of vascular dementia 15 years ago at 76.

Some research I've seen suggests a key role for education in its links to later pre-conditions, and mediation of the effects of these factors. Were more educated footballers relative protected from onset of dementia?

My father passed away last august cause dementia. He played irish league football.and when the ball got wet which was on a regular basis it was heading a block of concrete. I do believe that dementia is linked to football.

Serious matter and kind of obvious that repeated shocks to the forehead might have a terrible cumulative effect. Amazed its not better known.