Does heading a football give you dementia? That’s the question neuropathologist Willie Stewart is attempting to answer by comparing former professional footballers with nonplayers.
Football authorities have been accused of dragging their feet on this since former England player Jeff Astle died in 2002, with industrial disease cited as the cause of death.
Ex-England and Newcastle captain Alan Shearer has raised the profile of the issue by speaking about his dementia fears after years of heading balls.
Stewart is investigating whether there is a direct link, and his team is comparing the medical histories of 10 000 former footballers with 30 000 nonplayers.
The study, Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk, is funded by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association and aims to gather hard evidence about an emotive subject.
It was Stewart who, in 2014, said that Astle had died aged 59 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) stemming from head injuries after examining the former player’s brain. The condition is usually associated with boxers.
But he is cautious in his approach and said delving into big data is crucial because the issue is clouded by anecdote and speculation.
He cites the example of three members of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team who developed Alzheimer’s disease — Martin Peters, who is 74, and Ray Wilson and Nobby Stiles, both deceased.
“Bad science comes from anecdotes and they are all we have got,” he told AFP at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
“Anecdotes are quite persuasive as quite a lot of the 1966 winning team have dementia, and other football teams have been brought forward with high rates of dementia, but we don’t fully understand.”
Stewart says it is not a simple matter of cause and effect. “One has to know whether, for instance, the other teams in the 1966 World Cup, do they have similar levels of dementia? Or is it just a quirk of statistics that it has fallen on the England team?”
He says Astle’s CTE is not necessarily down to heading the ball, as is widely assumed. “I can see why people say that because it is a visual kind of thing to hang on, for people to explain he headed it, that is why his brain was injured,” said Stewart. “It may well be, but there is no direct link.”
Stewart suggests Astle’s brain injury could have been caused by a clash of heads or being kicked in the head during a rough-and-tumble playing career.
An apparently higher rate of dementia among former footballers could be ascribed to other factors.
“What we might find is, yes, on the surface it appears the dementia rate is higher than you expect, but that is because we know them as they are high-profile and it is an age-related disease and playing football has given them a healthier life.
“It has seen them live to 70, 80, whereas other guys in the same community are dying in their 60s and not getting to the age where one typically risks getting dementia.”
Stewart says a study involving students from Stirling University in Scotland shows there is an effect on the brain from heading footballs.
“We took them into a laboratory environment and used a machine … which fires balls at you,” he said.
“We measured the brain function before and afterwards and found out the electrical function of the brain had slowed down a bit and their memory function had slowed down.
“These minor brain impairments lasted 24 hours,” he said.
Stewart drily observed that he would not advise students who were taking exams to go out and head balls the evening before, but he points out it is difficult to extrapolate the longer-term effects.
European governing body Uefa this year commissioned two studies to look into heading in youth football, showing the issue is on the agenda.
And Stewart believes that football authorities would not shirk from taking tough decisions if heading were proved to be linked to dementia.
“A few years down the line, if it came to it that heading was high-risk, Fifa or Uefa would accept it and say [we’ve] got to change so these guys and women live long and happy lives afterwards,” he said. — AFP