Signs of dementia found in a small number of retired footballers

Research published today (Wednesday 1 February) in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, found evidence of neurological signs related to dementia in a small number of professional football players.

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Research published today (Wednesday 1 February) in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, found evidence of neurological signs related to dementia in a small number of professional football players with a past history of repetitive head injuries. No causal link was found between heading a football and the risk of developing dementia.

From 1980 to 2010, 14 male, retired footballers with dementia regularly met with the researchers. All participants were skilled headers of the ball and had played football for an average of 26 years. The researchers collected the clinical data of the participants and also gathered information about their playing career and concussion history. Six of the participants had their brains studied in detail after they passed away.

Everyone involved in the study had memory and thinking problems, with an average age of onset of 63 years. Of the people whose brains were studied, all of them had evidence that they had experienced several head impacts. The researchers also found evidence of a form of dementia called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and some also had signs of other forms of dementia. However, more research is needed to understand whether there is any link between playing football and risk of dementia.

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society said: 

'This research broadens an important area of investigation into sports-related head injuries and dementia, that has caused much recent speculation. However, these results do not provide proof that heading a football, or sustaining a head injury by any other means during the sport, is linked to developing dementia. 

'It is good to see long term studies that take medical data such as reported concussions into account, but the study lacks important genetic and lifestyle information for the people involved. We know that these factors play a big role in influencing a person’s risk of dementia and so need to be accounted for when understanding how the condition has developed. To be able to gather the robust data that we need, studies should include much larger numbers of participants than used here and need to compare footballers who do not have cognitive problems with those who do. These factors will help us to unpick the answers to a complex and under researched issue.'

'Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia and it’s important to ensure that people playing any kind of sport are able to do safely.'