Footballers run the risk of suffering brain damage and developing dementia by repeatedly heading a ball, according to a study by University College London.
The study, published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, examined the brains of six deceased footballers who suffered from dementia and found that they all had Alzheimer's disease. Four showed evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a potential cause of dementia stemming from repeated head trauma. CTE has also been found in the brains of American footballers, boxers and rugby players.
"This is the first time CTE has been confirmed in a group of retired footballers," Dr Helen Ling from UCL's Institute of Neurology explained, quoted by The Guardian.
"Our findings of CTE in retired footballers suggest a potential link between playing football and the development of degenerative brain pathologies in later life. However, it is important to note that we only studied a small number of retired footballers with dementia and that we still do not know how common dementia is among footballers."
The footballers analysed in the study started playing football during their childhood and played regularly for around a quarter of a century. Ling acknowledges that the study was small and more research was required, but stresses that a "protective strategy" should be put in place if they can prove the risk is higher than "the normal population".
"The most pressing question now to ask following up [on] this study would be how common dementia is among retired footballers," added Ling. "If we can demonstrate that the risk is higher than the normal population then we will know we really need to urgently look at who is at risk and put protective strategy in place."
Ling's UCL colleague and professor of clinical neuroscience Huw Morris believes playing football is still largely beneficial and does not think the findings of the study should be of concern to the general population, but he does see a need to fully understand these brain diseases.
"I don't think that in general terms these are findings that can be extrapolated to the general population," Morris said. "These are people with very high amount of playing and exposure to whatever the head injury risks are within football."
"One of the really important risk factors for dementia is cardiovascular risk. Ex-footballers have much lower cardiovascular mortality – hypertension, heart attacks and strokes – than do the general population.
"So it remains the case that football is overall beneficial for your overall health. Ex-footballers have a lower mortality than the general population, but nevertheless we need to understand a lot more about these brain diseases, especially as we are all part of an ageing population," Morris said.