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Link between football and dementia to be probed by £1m Scores study at University of East Anglia

A £1million research study will probe links between football and dementia by screening former professional players.

The University of East Anglia announced yesterday that it was recruiting ex-players over the age of 50 to test them for early signs of dementia.

Could repeatedly heading the ball lead to an increased risk of dementia? (26102117)
Could repeatedly heading the ball lead to an increased risk of dementia? (26102117)

Last year, the University of Glasgow found that the rate of neurodegenerative disease was about three-and-a-half times higher among ex-professional footballers, including a fivefold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Lead researcher Dr Michael Grey, from UEA’s School of Health Sciences, said: “We now know that there is much higher risk of dementia in former professional footballers, and we think this is related to repetitive heading of the ball. We do not know if this extends to the amateur level.

“So there will be many footballers out there who are understandably very worried about their futures.

“We will be working with former professional players to investigate and track their brain health over time.

“We hope to follow these footballers for the rest of their lives. This is the first time that this type of research has been done.”

The researchers will test the memory and thinking skills of the retired footballers to see if they show any cognitive changes as a result of concussions and head injuries.

There has been growing concern over a possible link between football and dementia risk.

Ex-England striker Alan Shearer explored whether repeatedly heading the ball in training and matches led to an increased risk in his 2017 BBC documentary Dementia, Football and Me.

At the time, he said: “I went into football knowing that at the end of my career I could probably expect to have some physical issues, which I do - I have dodgy knees, a dodgy back and dodgy ankles.

“But what I never contemplated for a second back then was that there is a chance that heading the ball could affect my brain.”

The new study - known as Scores (Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive Head Impact Exposure in Sport) project - will begin in the Eastern region, and spread nationwide.

Former Norwich City Football Club striker Iwan Roberts, who played more than 600 games for his club and country, is supporting the research.

An MRI scan of the brain (26102097)
An MRI scan of the brain (26102097)

“I played football for 20 years professionally, and headed many balls over that period. I want to see whether there is anything I should be concerned about in the foreseeable future,” he said.

“It’s always important to improve and make things better. The game has improved, balls are lighter, but the modern-day player will still be at risk of this type of illness.

“We don’t know how young children cope with heading the ball. I personally think that [heading the ball] should be banned from a certain age. The research they are doing here will help everybody.”

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Granta Park-based charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, welcomed the study.

“Recent research has highlighted an increased risk of dementia in ex-professional footballers, but we don’t yet know the cause of this association. It’s not yet clear whether, or how, football may need to change to address this risk and we continue to call for further research to begin to answer some of these unanswered questions,” she said.

“This new study looking for early signs of dementia is a positive step forward for dementia research and the wider football community. It’s encouraging to see this study focus on ex-professional women footballers as well as former male players, as there has so far been little research in this population.

“Only through a sustained investment in dementia research will we keep people connected to their families, their worlds and themselves for longer.

“If you have any questions about this study, or dementia research in general, contact Alzheimer’s Research UK’s dementia research infoline on 0300 111 5 111.”

UEA hopes to raise £1million for the study, including 10 per cent from crowdfunding.

To take part in the research, visit scoresproject.org or to contact the team about the project, email scoresproject@uea.ac.uk.

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