Professional footballers are more likely to have worse brain health after they turn 65 compared with the general population, according to groundbreaking new research.
The study, which compared 75 former male professional footballers, including the former Norwich players Iwan Roberts and Jeremy Goss and the Crystal Palace striker Mark Bright to non-footballers, found that footballers’ brain health was typically better in their 40s.
However, by the age of 65 they performed worse when assessed on tests for reaction time, executive function and spatial navigation, which is when the effects of repeatedly heading footballs appear to impact more on the brain.
The lead researcher and sports concussion expert Dr Michael Grey, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Health Sciences, said: “We know that heading the ball has been associated with an increased risk of dementia among professional football players. But until now, little has been known about when players start to show signs of brain health decline.
“We are using cutting-edge technology to test for early signs of cognitive dysfunction that are identifiable long before any memory problems or other noticeable symptoms become apparent. This is the first time this type of research has been done and these are the first results as we follow our participants’ brain health for the next few years.”
In 2019, a landmark study by Prof Willie Stewart and researchers at the University of Glasgow found that former professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population. However, it was based on death records in Scotland, whereas this new study tracks changes to the brain among living people.
Dr Grey said: “In the 40- to 50-year-old age group, the footballers are performing a bit better than the normal group. But when they get to 65, that’s when things are starting to go wrong.
“This shows us that the exercise associated with playing football is good for the brain, but the negative effects of contact sport do begin to appear later in life.”
Dr Grey said the project began after conversations with Dawn Astle, who lost her father, Jeff, to accumulated brain trauma. “She said to me: ‘Professor Stewart’s results are shocking, but nobody’s looking at people who are still alive,’” Grey said. “And that’s where the study was born.”
He is looking to expand his research to examine the effects of contact sports on the brain health of women and amateur and recreational athletes and is calling for volunteers to join his Scores [screening cognitive outcomes after repetitive head impact exposure in sport] project.
“We know that when the head comes in contact with another object, such as a ball or fist, and the brain is wobbling around inside the cranium there’s damage being done,” he said. “We call it sub-concussive damage. It won’t cause a concussion but there is damage to the underlying structures within the brain.”
“And what we know is that over a career of doing this, certainly for professional men, that this damage is resulting in some level of neurodegeneration. So it’s really important that we start monitoring the brain health of people who engage in sport.”