Professional footballers are more likely to have worse brain health compared with non-footballers once they hit 65 – according to new research from the University of East Anglia.
Researchers have been monitoring elite football players for early signs of brain health decline and comparing their results with a sample of active non-footballers.
The findings are the first to emerge from a ground-breaking study tracking the brain health of former professional players over time.
More than 75 former professional players have been involved in the study, including former Norwich City stars Iwan Roberts and Jeremy Goss, and Crystal Palace hero Mark Bright.
UEA graduate Jay French, another former Norwich City player, is an ambassador for the project in the Middle East and has been raising awareness about the study at this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Lead researcher and sports concussion expert Dr Michael Grey, from UEA’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.
“The problem has been emphasised with a number of high-profile former players coming forward with their diagnosis of dementia.
“During this year’s World Cup we have seen a few instances where the guidelines designed to protect players are not actually followed and this is really worrying.
“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 that 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.”
The research team hope to track their brain health for the rest of their lives.
The researchers carried out cognitive function tests for male elite footballers and compared their results with a large sample of non-footballers.
Dr Grey said: “What we are seeing is that in the 40-50-year-old age group, the footballers are performing a bit better than the normal group.
“We know that regular exercise is really good for brain health, and our research confirms that professional footballers have improved brain health in their 40s compared with non-footballers.
“The physical exercise associated with professional football keeps their bodies and brains in tip-top shape, and this extends to their retirement.
“But when they get to 65 – that’s when things are starting to go wrong. The over 65s performed worse when assessed for things like reaction time, executive function, and spatial navigation. These are early warning signs for deteriorating brain health.
“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.
“These assessments are ongoing, and the participants are being monitored for changing brain health over time, so we will hopefully follow our cohort of former footballers for the rest of their lives. This will give us a really clear picture of the potential damage caused by heading the ball.
“This research highlights the need to investigate ways we can limit the damage to the brain as people play sport and to monitor brain health as we get older.
The SCORES project (Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive head impact Exposure in Sport) is also trying to collect more data from former amateur and professional female players, who could be putting themselves at even greater risk of dementia than male players.
Want to take part?
The research team are looking for former contact sport athletes, both men and women, who are aged over 40 to take part in the study. Former non-contact sport athletes aged over 40 are also encouraged to participate.
Most participants will do the testing online at home, but there is an option for a small group of participants to visit the lab.
To take part, please visit www.scoresproject.org. To contact the team about the project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Could you help by making a donation?
UEA are seeking vital funding to support the next stages of this ambitious research.
To discuss a gift please get in touch with email@example.com, or donate online at https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/giving-to-uea/our-causes/scores-dementia-research