New Clinical Study to Answer the Question of Whether Football Headers Cause Brain Damage

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Wednesday 18th July 2018

In the wake of a successful and highly popular football World Cup, a study is to be undertaken by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and funded by the Drake Foundation to see whether repeated heading of the ball can cause long term health issues or brain damage.

The study will be of 300 former professional football players between 50 and 85, taking them through a series of physical and mental tests to determine their capabilities. There will also be clinical examinations and data gathered about each player’s football career, playing position and lifestyle factors, which will allow comparisons between defenders, strikers as well as other positions such as those in the midfield that may not head the ball as often.

All of this information will be compared to the 1946, a general study on the population and a monitor of how people born in 1946 have aged since then.

This mirrors a very similar study, also funded by the Drake Foundation undertaken by the Rugby Football Union which in 2016 looked at the impact of concussion injuries suffered by former rugby players in England.

Whilst the risks of post-concussion syndrome and other neurological disorders caused by repeated head injuries are known in combat sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts and American football, where head injuries are common, frequent and shorten the careers of athletes in those careers, much less is known about concussion risks in football and practically nothing is known about the effects of repeated headers over the course of a player’s life.

The death of West Bromwich Albion and England national team footballer Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 as the result of a degenerative brain disease is a notable watershed moment where concussions in football began to be taken seriously. It took twelve years and a long running Justice for Jeff campaign for Astle’s death to be officially ruled as being caused by heading a football. Astle’s story was part of the BBC Documentary, Dementia, Football and Me, presented by former England international player Alan Shearer.

One factor in Astle’s case that is different to modern football is the ball itself. Unlike modern balls which are light and made of synthetic materials and waterproofed, most balls were made from leather, which is both heavy and porous, which meant the ball was even heavier in rainy weather or when wet.

The news of the study has been largely welcomed by the footballing community, with the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Gordon Taylor noting that the study reflects two decades of concern regarding head injuries impacts, concussions and brain diseases for the PFA.

One thing that it will be less equipped to explore, due to the age of the participants is whether concussions remain an issue in an age of lighter footballs and mandatory concussion tests. Concerns remain after the failure to recognise the concussion suffered in the 2018 Champions League Final after a clash between Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Liverpool’s Loris Kairus until several after the completion of the match, which significantly affected the latter’s goalkeeping ability and put the 25 year old at risk of further injury.