University of Glasgow landmark study

Former footballers are at increased risk from dementia

Research: Dr Willie Stewart

Former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia than others in the general population of a similar age, according to new research.

The University of Glasgow led the landmark FIELD study of over 7500 ex-pros which revealed the higher rate of death due to neurodegenerative disease.

The research was launched after claims that repeatedly heading a heavy leather football was the cause of former England international Jeff Astle’s death in 2002 at the age of 59.

In findings published today in The New England Journal of Medicine and funded by the English Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), researchers compared the causes of death of 7,676 former Scottish male professionals who were born between 1900 and 1976 against those of more than 23,000 matched people from the general population.

Consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, honorary clinical associate professor at the University of Glasgow, said: “This is the largest study to date looking in this detail at the incidence of neurodegenerative disease in any sport, not just professional footballers.

“A strength of our study design is that we could look in detail at rates of different neurodegenerative disease subtypes. This analysis revealed that risk ranged from a 5-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately 4-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a 2-fold Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls.”

Although footballers had higher risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, they were less likely to die of other common diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, including lung cancer.

Reflecting these findings, the study found that deaths in former footballers were lower than expected up to age 70, and higher than expected over that age.

 

The work is supported by funding from The Football Association and The Professional Footballers’ Association Charity; and an NHS Research Scotland Career Researcher Fellowship.

Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “This well-conducted study of long-term health in ex-professional footballers is the largest of its kind and fills an important gap in our knowledge about football and dementia.

“Former professional footballers enjoy several health benefits, but the strong association with dementia justifies calls for a global focus on research to understand this link further.

“The study has not looked at what aspect of players’ lives on and off the pitch may be behind their increased dementia risk, but there is a pressing need for further high-quality research to address this question. Alzheimer’s Research UK is acting as an independent advisor to the FA to help prioritise the direction of future research.

“While the research is limited by the accuracy of historic medical records, it’s only due to the quality and availability of medical records in Scotland that this work has been possible.

“The results form a solid basis for wider expert discussion about the impact of professional football on long-term brain health, including head injury, and we hope to see more data from this study in the coming months and years.

“The study focused on former professional football players and doesn’t tell us anything about whether the modern professional or grassroots game should change or how.

“With football close to the hearts of so many of us, football associations across the world must take the findings seriously and review emerging evidence to ensure players can enjoy the game safely at all levels.”



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