Former footballers are approximately three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population, according to a new study.
The report, released on Monday and commissioned by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association, assessed the medical records of 7,676 men who played professional football in Scotland and were born between 1900 and 1976.
Their records were matched against more than 23,000 individuals from the general population, with the study led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University.
His findings report that the “risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls”.
Although footballers had higher risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, they were less likely to die of other common diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, including lung cancer.
The study – titled ‘Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk’ or FIELD for short – found that deaths in ex-footballers were lower than expected up to age 70, and higher than expected over that age.
Dr Stewart said in a statement: “An important aspect of this work has been the ability to look across a range of health outcomes in former professional footballers. This allows us to build a more complete picture of health in this population.
“Our data show that while former footballers had higher dementia rates, they had lower rates of death due to other major diseases.
“As such, whilst every effort must be made to identify the factors contributing to the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease to allow this risk to be reduced, there are also wider potential health benefits of playing football to be considered.”
The findings come 17 years since the death of former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle with what a coroner described as an “industrial injury”.
Since Astle’s death, the families of dozens of other ex-footballers, including several from England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad, have come forward to reveal their stories of dealing with dementia and related illnesses.
FA chairman Greg Clarke said: “The whole game must recognise that this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered.
“It is important that the global football family now unites to find the answers and provide a greater understanding of this complex issue. The FA is committed to doing all it can to make that happen.”
PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said it was “incumbent on football globally to come together to address this issue in a comprehensive and united manner”.
He added: “Research must continue to answer more specific questions about what needs to be done to identify and reduce risk factors.”
It is not clear from the study what the exact causes of the increased rates of dementia are.
Today, the FIELD study – funded by the PFA and The @FA – has announced its findings regarding ‘Football’s InfluencE on Lifelong outcomes and Dementia risk’. Here, Gordon Taylor, explains the study. pic.twitter.com/FCTQthZt0J
— PFA | Professional Footballers' Association (@PFA) October 21, 2019
The FA said in a statement: “The study does not determine whether the cause is due to concussions suffered by the group of professional footballers, or concussion management, or heading of the football, or style of play, or the design and composition of footballs over the years, or personal lifestyle, or some other factor.”
The governing body said the study’s findings had been reviewed by an independent Medical and Football Advisory Group, which recommended re-issuing the current FA concussion guidelines and best-practice advice for coaching heading and called for further steps to improve head injury management, like supporting UEFA’s proposals to introduce concussion substitutes.
The group said more research was needed and there was “not enough evidence at this stage to make other changes to the way the modern-day game is played”.
The FA said it was not important to try and establish “whether or not the results from this historic group of former professional footballers relates, in any way, to the modern-day professional footballer”.
It said it had written to FIFA and UEFA to offer its full support on future research in this area as well as share the findings of the study with them.
Ex-pro footballers are 3.5x more likely to die from dementia, says new @FA & @PFA research. Findings are an important first step in showing if link between football & dementia exists. But study didn't explore reasons behind increased risk.
— AlzheimersResearchUK 🍊 (@AlzResearchUK) October 21, 2019
Reacting, Dr Carol Routledge, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, called the study “well-conducted” but said there was “a pressing need for further high-quality research” to discover what aspects of players’ lives on and off the pitch was behind the increased risk.
She added: “The study focused on former professional football players and doesn’t tell us anything about whether the modern professional or grassroots game should change or how. With football close to the hearts of so many of us, football associations across the world must take the findings seriously and review emerging evidence to ensure players can enjoy the game safely at all levels.”