By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Former female professional soccer players will be included for the first time in research into possible links between heading balls and dementia thanks to a new project launched on Tuesday.
Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) will carry out long-term cognitive tests on former men and women players to shed more light on the findings of a report by the University of Glasgow and Hampden Sports Clinic last year.
That report, based on the medical records of 7,676 former Scottish professional male players, found they were around five times more likely to have suffered from Alzheimer's disease -- the most common form of dementia -- than the average.
Relatives of former players suffering with dementia blame repeatedly heading the ball for their condition.
One of the aims of the new one million pounds part-crowd-funded UEA project will be to analyse how soon ex-players first start displaying dementia symptoms.
"The (Glasgow) study asked the question 'Is this a problem?' and it was basically a binary answer, a yes or no and the answer was yes," lead researcher Michael Grey, from the UEA's School of Health Sciences, told Reuters.
"Many studies are a kind of one shot assessment, comparing one group of people to another group.
"This is more a longitudinal study. We are going to be following people over a lifetime. The question we are asking is 'Does the rate of decline increase, is there a sharper rate of decline with ex-pro footballers than everyone else?"
With women's professional football booming globally, Grey said studies into the effects of females heading a ball were vital.
"It's important because women are so often forgotten in this conversation," he said, emphasising the fact that females in Britain are more likely than men to suffer with dementia.
"Some former professional women players are starting to be at the age we want to look at them."
Alzheimer's Research UK welcomed the study.
"This study looking for early signs of dementia is a positive step forward for dementia research and the wider football community," Director of Research Carol Routledge said.
"It's encouraging to see this study focus on ex-professional women footballers as well as former male players, as there has so far been little research in this population."
While exact causes have not been determined, Grey believes repetitive heading is a major factor in dementia and warned that blaming old leather footballs is a "red herring".
"The balls are waterproof and lighter now but they are being kicked at much higher velocity," he said. "Think of the kinetic energy imparted on the head. Double the velocity and the impact is quadrupled."
Grey said his SCORES project (Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive head impact Exposure in Sport) will be rolled out nationally this year and was confident former players would help provide 'really good data'.
"We will be working with them to track their brain health over time," Grey said.
Former Norwich City striker Iwan Roberts, 51, is already involved. "I want to see whether there is anything I should be concerned about in the foreseeable future," he said.
The Football Association (FA) and Professional Footballers Association (PFA) jointly funded Glasgow University's FIELD study and has set up its own taskforce into links to dementia.
A spokesman said it welcomed projects like the one at UEA and was "looking forward to seeing its findings."
In December, Charlotte Cowie, the FA's head of medicine, urged former players to get involved with studies into dementia.
"It is a way for footballers to understand their own health better and to help players of the future," she said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris)