Elite football players are more likely to develop dementia in later life than the rest of the population, a study has found. It adds to mounting evidence that head trauma in sports can increase the risk of brain diseases.
Footballing heroes including 1966 World Cup stars Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles and Sir Bobby Charlton have been afflicted by the disease.
Jack and Nobby died in 2020, the same year Bobby, 85, was diagnosed.
Researchers looked at 6,000 men who played in the Swedish top division between 1924 and 2019 and 56,000 non-footballers.
The players had a 1.6 times higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Eight per cent were diagnosed, compared with five per cent of the control group.
However, there was no increased risk of motor neurone disease and the likelihood of Parkinson’s disease was lower among the sportsmen.
The overall chance of developing a neurodegenerative disease was 1.5 times higher for outfield players.
But there was no significant increase for goalkeepers.
Peter Ueda, assistant professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, said: “Goalkeepers rarely head the ball, unlike outfield players, but are exposed to similar environments and lifestyles during their football careers and perhaps also after retirement.
“It has been hypothesised repetitive mild head trauma through heading the ball is the reason football players are at increased risk. It could be that the difference in neurodegenerative disease risk between these two types of players supports this.”
The research follows a landmark 2019 study in Scotland which found footballers were 3.5 times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases. Prof Ueda said: “While the risk increase in our study is slightly smaller than in the study from Scotland, it confirms that elite footballers have a greater risk.
“As there are growing calls from within the sport for greater measures to protect brain health, our study adds to the limited evidence base and can be used to guide decisions on how to manage these risks.”
Most affected by a brain condition played during the mid-20th century.
Changes in the game over subsequent decades lessened some of the risk, the researchers noted in The Lancet Public Health journal.
This included the switch from leather balls, which soaked up water, to synthetic balls, along with better training and equipment.
The Football Association (FA) and world governing body Fifa last year invested £1.3million into a four-year BrainHOPE project that is further investigating players’ brain health.
The FA is also trialling banning heading in matches for players aged under 12.
Meanwhile, Uefa, the governing body of Europe, has funded research into the impact of heading in youth football and issued new guidelines.
Dr Richard Oakley of Alzheimer’s Society said more research is needed to better understand links between head trauma and dementia. He said: “Sporting bodies need this clarity so they can put in place appropriate measures to protect players.”
Dr Chris Morris, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University, stressed that football is still good exercise, adding: “Many large studies show that physical activity such as football is good for both general and mental health.”
The death rate during the study period was slightly lower among players, reflecting physical fitness.
Agony of the 1966 World Cup heroes
Some of football’s biggest stars have been diagnosed with dementia, including several of England’s 1966 World Cup heroes.
The family of Sir Bobby and Jack Charlton have spoken publicly about their dementia fight.
Jack’s final years were detailed in the documentary Finding Jack Charlton. He died in 2020, the same year Sir Bobby was diagnosed.
Their younger brother Tommy said after Jack’s death: “It is hard not to think it was linked to heading the ball. I had four uncles who all played football who were hit by dementia.”
Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson from the ’66 squad were also diagnosed with dementia.