Exclusive: Doctor studying dementia and football link urges clubs to introduce regular cognitive testing for players and to ban kids heading

Dr Don Williams, a consultant psychiatrist, began investigating the impact of heading and repetitive brain trauma in 1981  - Bongarts
Dr Don Williams, a consultant psychiatrist, began investigating the impact of heading and repetitive brain trauma in 1981 - Bongarts

The first British doctor to study the link between dementia and football has urged clubs to immediately introduce regular cognitive testing for players and follow the example of AFC Bournemouth by banning heading among under-11s.

Dr Don Williams, a consultant psychiatrist, began investigating the impact of heading and repetitive brain trauma in football after meeting a patient - Wilfred Thomas - in 1981 who had been a renowned header of a ball during his career and developed early onset dementia. The wider causal link between professional football and dementia was emphatically confirmed last month by the University of Glasgow and Dr Williams has become increasingly dismayed by the subsequent inaction.

The Football Association has backed calls for concussion substitutes and the International Football Association Board has formed a taskforce to consider how that might work. The football authorities, however, have otherwise resisted calls for the precautionary banning of heading for young children and, beyond reissuing their concussion guidelines, there has been no noticeable major awareness campaign.

The Glasgow research, which was led by Dr Willie Stewart, found that former professional footballers were 3.5 times more likely to die from dementia than the rest of the population but also five times more likely to have been prescribed dementia medicine during their lives. The former players were respectively five and four times more likely to have died from Alzheimer’s Disease or Motor Neurone Disease. The research did find improved outcomes for heart and lung health and Dr Williams now wants football to urgently address the neurological risk so that other known benefits can be further maximised. 

“This link is so important as soccer is the most popular game in the world and dementia is such a horrific illness,” said Dr Williams. “The results will be no surprise to the relatives of affected players but they will be very disheartened by the final conclusion that more research is needed before any recommendations can be made on how to reduce the problem.

Eddie Howe - Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Eddie Howe's Bournemouth have become the first club to ban heading among their under-11s team Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“It is time to act by introducing three easy, preliminary recommendations. Firstly the concept of ‘Look after your brain’ must be promoted in health education. Secondly, as in the USA, children under 11 should be banned from heading the ball.

“Thirdly, athletes who are at risk of repetitive sub-concussive head injuries should be screened regularly using cognitive psychological tests. If these show deterioration, advice must be sought about early retirement. There is no doubt that dementia is a significant disease in soccer players and it’s time for action.”

He also described calls for additional research without immediate action as “ammunition for the Football Association and the Professional Footballers' Association to sit comfortably on the fence”.

Dr Williams previously instigated groundbreaking research by tracking 14 former players with dementia who were referred to his Old Age Psychiatry Service in Swansea between 1980 and 2003. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a type of dementia associated with head trauma - was found in two thirds of the brains that were ultimately examined in post-mortem following research funded by The Drake Foundation.