The first generation of Premier League players are among those being urged to volunteer for a groundbreaking new £ 1.3 million research project that will seek to reduce their dementia risk.
Led by Professor Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who proved football’s dementia link, the study will be the first that actively attempts mid-life interventions to reduce dangers for a population group which is at a significantly elevated risk.
Following a campaign by Telegraph Sport, Prof Stewart’s team at the University of Glasgow found that former football players were 3.5 times more likely to die of dementia than the wider population. The risk of neurological disease was also significantly higher among outfield players, especially those defenders who frequently headed the ball.
Although there has been a huge focus on affected players from the 1960s, notably England’s World Cup-winning squad, there has been no drop-off in dementia rates since football stopped using leather balls. It has all prompted Prof Stewart to call on football authorities to introduce heading limits, and consider outlawing heading completely, but also explore proactive measures for recently retired players.
The new ‘BrainHOPE’ study, which will be jointly funded by the Football Association and Fifa, and involves collaboration between Imperial College London and Universities in Glasgow and Edinburgh, will last four years.
Researchers will use brain imaging among a range of tests to compare brain health in mid-life former footballers to the general population and will recruit 120 former players.
Premier League record goalscorer Alan Shearer and England manager Gareth Southgate are among those former players who have previously volunteered for brain research.
As well as studying the footballers’ brains, experts will also explore whether differences in neurological health among footballers might benefit from management of known dementia risk factors. The effectiveness of these interventions will then be explored, with brain scans and tests repeated again after two years.
“Our findings show there is reason to worry about lifelong brain health in former footballers,” said Prof Stewart. “BrainHOPE is designed to identify tests that might detect problems early on and, more importantly, possible ways to try and reduce dementia risk for former footballers.”
Prof Craig Ritchie, who will jointly lead the project, said the project would “have a great impact on the wellbeing of current and retired players”.
The FA has been criticized over their failure to join the Professional Footballers’ Association in a proposed care fund for former players.
They have, however, co-funded major research and introduced training heading limits that apply across both the professional and amateur game. Charlotte Cowie, their head of performance medicine, described the new study as “another important step”.
Prof Stewart’s team in Glasgow also perform examinations on the brains of diseased former players and have found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of dementia linked to repetitive head impacts, in a high proportion of former players, including former England internationals Nobby Stiles and Jeff Astle.