Heading a football repeatedly may be a factor in the development of dementia, a study has found.
Researchers gathered data on 14 retired footballers with dementia and followed them up regularly over 20 years until their death. The brains of six of the footballers were examined post-mortem.
Four of the six showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – brain injury at the front of the brain linked to boxing and other contact sports.
Researchers also found evidence of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of neurodegeneration, suggesting various factors contributed to the dementia.
All of the footballers were keen headers of the ball. They had played the sport for an average of 26 years.
Dr David Reynolds, of the charity Alzheimer’s UK, said recreational football was unlikely to cause long-term problems and the benefits of exercise outweighed the risks.
He said: ‘The condition is caused by a combination of age, lifestyle and genetic factors… Further research is needed.’
The study was published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica.
It has long been suggested that repeated heading of a heavy football may have an impact on cognitive functioning in later life to the point of being given the name chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a neurodegenerative process typically at the front of the brain.
This clinic-pathological study followed up 14 retired footballers with dementia and examined the brains of five people who had been professional footballers and one who had been a committed amateur throughout his life. All six went on to develop dementia in their 60s. At post-mortem CTE was found in four cases and was linked to past prolonged exposure to repetitive head impacts from head-to-player collisions and heading the ball thousands of times in their careers.
Although a definitive link cannot be established in such a small clinic-pathological study, it is highly suggestive and should support calls for protective strategies for sports people exposed to repeated low-level head impact.
Research score: 4/5