First Scientific Link Discovered between Football Headers and the onset of Dementia

Wednesday 15th February 2017

Initial reports from UK researchers have suggested there is a link between professional footballers heading a heavy football repeatedly and long term brain damage in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Research, undertaken from Cardiff University and University College London and funded by the Drake Foundation, focused on connecting anecdotal evidence with examining the brains of five professional and one committed amateur footballer who all developed dementia in their 60s after playing football for over two decades. The post-mortem studies revealed that all of them had a tear in a membrane in the brain which was consistent to repetitive head impacts from heading footballs.

This research has intensified growing calls to ban heading in youth football and piles pressures on the Football Association and the Players Football Association to increase their research into the long term effects of headers and other head trauma in football.

The findings come in the wake of a 12 year campaign for the family of former West Bromwich Albion forward Jeff Astle, who was originally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died in 2002. In 2014 after a long campaign known as “Justice for Jeff”, the condition was rediagnosed as CTE and Astle, known as an intense footballer known for strong headers of the heavy leather footballs that were standard at the time, was the first footballer to have his cause of death changed to “death by industrial injury”, confirming that he did indeed die by heading a football.

Concussions and their connection to CTE has been researched since the 1920s, focusing primarily on the “punch-drunk” effect boxers suffer from after a career in the ring and believed for many years to be limited to the particularly widespread repeated head traumas that would come from boxing matches.. Widely known in boxing and American Football, a sport which is expected to pay out over $1 Billion to affected sportsmen over the next 65 years as a result of a legal settled, CTE is a condition that has been misdiagnosed over decades and affects a great number of sports and famous sports personalities.

Head injuries were known, and concussions were common in other sports, however the cumulative and long term effects of repeating head trauma has only recently been researched, through the work of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Christopher Nowinski and Dr Bennet Omalu. The consequences of undiagnosed CTE can be devastating, with major brain degeneration, strokes and self-destructive behaviour being part of notable cases. At its most critical, CTE has led to suicide and even murder, with American footballer Jovan Belcher and professional wrestler Chris Benoit being tragically infamous examples of the extent of CTE and forcing the NFL and WWE respectively to strengthen their concussion-prevention strategies. With these tentative initial findings in association football, there needs to be research and exploration into what can be done to allow players to make informed choices about the risks they take and minimise their exposure to repeated traumatic injuries later in life.