New project plans to detect early signs of dementia in ex-professional footballers

A team of researchers launch a new project to test former football players for early signs of dementia by tracking long-term brain health.

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Recent research from the University of Glasgow has discovered that retired male football players are approximately 5-times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s when compared with the general population.

Following this, a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA; Norwich, UK) have launched a GBP £1 million fundraising goal for a new project to test former professional football players for early signs of dementia, with the hope that 10% of this goal will be crowd funded.

Little is known about exactly when players start to show signs of the disease that are identifiable long before any memory problems, further even less is known about the effects in women. 

“We now know that there is much higher risk of dementia in former professional footballers and we think this is related to repetitive heading of the ball. We do not know if this extends to the amateur level,” commented lead researcher, Michael Grey (UEA’s School of Health Sciences). “So, there will be many footballers out there who are understandably very worried about their futures.”

The team of researchers will investigate and track the brain health of former professional players and hope to follow the footballers for the rest of their lives. This will be the first time this type of research has been conducted.

“I played football for 20 years professionally and headed many balls over that period. I want to see whether there is anything I should be concerned about in the foreseeable future,” Iwan Roberts, former Norwich City Football Club striker, who is already supporting the project commented. “It’s always important to improve and make things better. The game has improved, balls are lighter, but the modern-day player will still be at risk of this type of illness.”

“We don’t know how young children cope with heading the ball. I personally think that [heading the ball] should be banned from a certain age,” added Roberts. “The research they are doing here will help everybody.”

The researchers are currently looking for former professional players to recruit to the project, which is among several pieces of work in UEA's Concussion Action Programme. Roberts is urging other professional players, both male and female, to take part in the study too.

Programme Manager at The Drake Foundation, Lauren Pulling commented: “We’re very pleased to see the issue of the long-term effects of head impacts in sport gaining more momentum. The UEA study will provide new insights that will contribute to a richer understanding of the link between football and neurodegenerative disease and will be particularly valuable in providing much-needed data on the effects of head impacts in women. Our hope is that these data will contribute to the development of appropriate laws of the game and pitch-side protocols that allow everyone to enjoy football safely.”


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Kimberley Ndungu

Editor, Concussion Zone

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