Contact sports, head injury and dementia risk

1. Summary and Introduction

Summary

Alzheimer’s Society hosted an expert roundtable to understand more about what issues surround head injuries leading to traumatic brain injury and dementia risk. It particularly focused on head injuries sustained during contact sports such as football. The group concluded that, whilst according to news reports there may appear to be an obvious link between head impact and dementia risk, there is actually little research evidence in this area, with relatively few studies and many unknowns. Based on current evidence, the risk arising from contact sports (such as football) in the development of dementia remains uncertain. If such a link does exist, the contribution of concussion and milder forms of head injury to overall risk is likely to be small.  However, even this small risk may be significant from a public health perspective because of the large number of people who play sports such as football, and because the risk is potentially modifiable. 


The expert group acknowledged the challenges of developing high quality definitive evidence in this area, and highlighted the fact that the lack of available evidence does not preclude a link. Traumatic brain injury, even if mild, can have a number of serious consequences, regardless of whether it is sustained either during sport or in other contexts.  Consequently, there is a rational argument to reduce the risk of sustaining a head injury as far as reasonably possible.   
 

Introduction

There has recently been increased interest about the potential effects of head injuries sustained whilst playing football (soccer) and the subsequent risk of developing dementia. These injuries may be caused by heading the ball or by colliding with other players. This worry has intensified in recent years as a number of former footballers – including members of the 1966 world cup-winning squad – have revealed that they are living with dementia. While it may seem that there is an obvious link between head impact and dementia risk, there is actually very little research evidence to inform policy and public health. 


To address this issue, Alzheimer’s Society hosted a roundtable which involved expert researchers from across the UK coming together to discuss the latest research findings and to discuss the priorities for further research. The group discussed the current available evidence from the perspective of epidemiology, neuropathology and public health to help clarify the current state of knowledge.
 

This report reflects the evidence at the time of the round table in April 2017. This is an active area of research, and new findings are emerging that may change the level of evidence available. Please contact research@alzheimers.org.uk if you have any questions related to this report.