Former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die from dementia and other serious neurological diseases, a new landmark study has discovered.
The research, funded by the Football Association and Professional Footballers Association, made public for the first time on Monday has confirmed a link between the national sport and a number of brain-related illnesses.
The 22-month study conducted by the University of Glasgow’s Brain Injury Group also established a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in Motor Neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s.
Former Liverpool player and manager Bob Paisley died from Alzheimers in 1996
However, the report could not establish a link between such brain illnesses and repeated concussions, heading older leather footballs, or other factors.
The FA, though, have confirmed it would be setting up a task force to examine the potential causes more comprehensively.
Sportsmail columnist Chris Sutton, whose father Mike – a former professional footballer – is suffering from a degenerative disease of the brain called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by repetitive brain trauma, has been vocal in condemning the PFA’s lack of work in trying to establish links between dementia and football.
‘If Gordon Taylor (outgoing PFA chief executive) had anything about him he would apologise to all his union members and their families who he has failed,’ Sutton posted on Twitter.
HOW DID ENGLAND STRIKER JEFF ASTLE DIE? INQUEST REVEALS HE SUFFERED CTE FROM HEADING LEATHER FOOTBALLS
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle (right) died in 2002.
He was only 59 but doctors said he had the brain of a 90-year-old after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals with a history of head injury, often as a result of multiple concussions.
An inquest ruled Astle died from dementia caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.
Astle, who was left unable to recognise his own children, once commented that heading a football was like heading ‘a bag of bricks’.
His family set up the Jeff Astle Foundation in 2015 in order to raise awareness of brain injury in sport. His daughter Dawn said ‘the game that he lived for killed him’.
Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham Hotspur during their double winning season of 1961, died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in 1993. He was 67.
His death has also been linked to heading the heavy, leather balls of the 1940s and 50s, along with fellow Tottenham players Dave Mackay, Peter Baker and Ron Henry.
The Jeff Astle gates outside West Brom’s Hawthorns stadium: Astle died from dementia, a disease that was ruled to have been caused by repetitively heading leather footballs
‘His own members dying in the most horrible and humiliating way. He failed my dad and hundreds more.’ The family of Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 of what a coroner ruled was ‘industrial disease’ from playing football now want urgent action.
Daughter Dawn, who will now join the FA-led taskforce to advise on next step, told the Telegraph: ‘My overall feeling is that I am staggered even though my own research and instinct was always that there was a serious problem.
HOW CAN PLAYING FOOTBALL LEAD TO DEMENTIA?
Footballers suffer repeated blows to their head, mainly through heading leather footballs and colliding with other players.
Leading scientists have found such injuries can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a crippling condition which can cause dementia.
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002, aged 59, from CTE. He was left unable to recognise his own children.
An inquest ruled that Astle’s CTE was caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.
Three of the nine surviving members of England’s 1966 winning World Cup team have Alzheimer’s – Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson.
Stiles’ son two years ago criticised the FA for failing to properly investigate a link between the sport and degenerative brain disease.
A landmark study of 14 retired footballers by University College London experts in 2017 found four had a condition CTE.
The link between head trauma and CTE is widely established in boxing, rugby and American football, where such injuries are common.
Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez had CTE when he killed himself in April at the age of 27 while serving a life sentence for murder.
‘There will be no celebrations. It doesn’t bring my dad back, it won’t bring any other dads and husbands back. We knew dad could not be the only one. We just wanted that question answered. We just wanted to see that football cared enough to find out the scale of the problem, to do the right thing and be there for these people when they need them most.’ The new research, which was led by Dr Willie Stewart, used databases of 7,676 pre and post-war Scottish league footballers who were aged 40 or over on December 31, 2016.
Stewart’s researchers studied their medical and death certification records and matched them against three people from the general population according to age, sex and demographic who had not played professional football.
Moving forward, the ongoing research will also examine playing positions, playing eras, the span of their career and the cause of death.
The FA suggested on Monday that they would now back the introduction of concussion substitutes, a potential law change that is set to be discussed by the International Football Association Board in the coming weeks.
Speaking at Wembley on Monday, the PFA’s deputy chief executive Bobby Barnes said that he was in favour of the introduction of independent doctors at matches to ensure instances of head trauma are dealt with appropriately.
Last season Tottenham were criticised for the way they dealt with a nasty collision between Vertonghen and team-mate Toby Alderweireld during a Champions League game against Ajax.
Central defender Vertonghen was initially given the green-light to stay on the field, but it quickly became apparent that he couldn’t continue, sparking criticism for the way Spurs had handled the situation.
‘I don’t want to criticise any particular football club, but it perhaps reinforces some of the things we are talking about independent arbitrators of these decisions because sometimes it’s a very difficult decision for a club doctor,’ said Barnes.
‘There are the pressures that he will have from the management of his football club and my own personal view is that it would be good to support those club medics by actually taking that decision out of their hands and actually leaving it for an independent person to do so.
Alan Shearer underwent tests on his brain as part of a documentary on the risks of dementia associated with the long-term effects of heading footballs in 2017
‘I personally would (have independent doctors) and I know that is within the FIFPro recommendations along with TV playback. We are looking for an overall solution but the key is using the technology to get the best possible solution and make it the safest workplace we can.’ Many former players, including Sutton, and doctors have been critical of the slow response of the PFA to the problem of dementia over the past decade.
However, Barnes insists the organisation now better understands the enormity of the problem.
He also confirmed that five members of the PFA have agreed to donate their brains to medical science after they die.
‘There is post-mortem brain donation and I can confirm that there are former players who have already agreed to do this. In fact, it includes five of our own staff within the PFA who have agreed to do this,’ Barnes confirmed.