Footballers are at just as much risk of dementia now as they were when players like Jeff Astle, Bobby and Jack Charlton headed rain-sodden, heavy-leather footballs in the 1960s and 70s, say researchers and campaigners.
Although balls are lighter, they now travel more quickly – up to 80mph in the professional game – and as a result can cause even more damage, according to new research.
The sad news that Manchester United and England legend Sir Bobby Charlton, 83, has been diagnosed with the degenerative brain condition has prompted fresh debate over what can be done to protect the current generation of footballers.
Sir Bobby Charlton is the fifth member of England’s 1966 starting XI to suffer from dementia
Charlton’s elder brother, Jack, died aged 85 in July following a battle with dementia and lymphoma.
And of England’s 1966 World Cup team, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson both died after battling dementia and Nobby Stiles died from advanced dementia and prostate cancer on October 30.
The link between playing professional football and developing Alzheimer’s or dementia was established through a major scientific study at the University of Glasgow in 2019, which found former players were 3.5 times more likely to die from the condition.
There is hope that dementia in football will be listed as an industrial disease within months
However, while the study resulted in Football Association guidelines restricting heading in youth football, there have been no measures introduced to protect professional players, while further research is undertaken to explore the current risks and establish the exact link between heading and dementia.
It’s been suggested that the risk to modern players is reduced because the ball is lighter and does not soak up rainwater, since it is made of polyurethane.
But the lead author of the Glasgow study, Dr Willie Stewart, today dismissed that possibility, highlighting new research from the University of Leeds, published last month.
Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters have all died from the disease
‘I stopped being amazed by continued repetition of ‘old heavy, leather balls’ fallacy some time ago,’ Dr Stewart tweeted. ‘The force experienced by the head during football heading is mainly influenced by the speed of the ball, rather than its mass or stiffness.’
And he told The Times: ‘You could even argue that the modern synthetic ball may be even more of a problem because it travels faster and doesn’t slow down, and may have an even bigger problem for people playing in 2020 than who were in 1970 when they get to their sixties and seventies.’
Dr Stewart is one of the leading experts on the link between football and dementia having studied the medical records of 7,676 men who played professionally between 1900 and 1976.
In addition, the scientist also conducted tests on the brain tissue of the celebrated West Bromwich Albion centre forward, Jeff Astle, in 2014, concluding the striker suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition traditionally associated with boxers.
Astle’s death at 59 years of age in 2002 came after he had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. A coroner ruled that Mr Astle’s brain had been damaged by years of heading heavy leather footballs.
It is a great tragedy what has happened to a number of players in the 1966 winning side
The centre-forward’s daughter, Dawn, is a determined campaigner for better protection of footballers and insists the football authorities could and should do more to reduce the risk of brain injury in players now, and not wait for further research.
‘Are they going to wait for other players to die and then do another study?’ Astle said to Sportsmail.
‘It’s not rocket science, the one thing that brings it altogether is head impact or injuries. It is ridiculous to say we don’t know what is causing it.’
Astle’s organisation, the Jeff Astle Foundation, is calling for two immediate changes to the modern game, neither of which would impact on the spectacle, it is claimed.
Jeff Astle was famed for his heading ability which tragically caused damage to his brain
Astle, nicknamed ‘The King’, played 361 games for West Bromwich Albion scoring 174 goals.
‘The first is limit the amount of balls professionals head in training. My dad would head the ball hundreds of times a day in training,’ said Astle, who wants demnetia to be listed as an industrial disease for footballers.
‘The second thing is to introduce concussion substitutes and that will protect players from potentially catastrophic injuries.’
Brain injury is one of many factors linked to the development of dementia, which covers a range complex conditions, including Alzheimer’s.
Neuroscientist Dr Michael Grey at the University of East Anglia is also convinced that there is enough evidence to act now.
‘We have got clear evidence of people who play professional football have a greater risk of dementia and we have a clear mechanism,’ he said.
Gordon Banks — Finest English keeper of all time, who played mostly for Leicester and Stoke. He died aged 81 after battle with kidney cancer.
George Cohen — A one-club man for Fulham where he has a statue after making 459 appearances. The 81-year-old is one of four members of the team still alive.
Ray Wilson — At 32, Huddersfield’s most capped England international was also the oldest member of the team. He died in May 2018 aged 83 after suffering with Alzheimer’s for 14 years.
Jack Charlton — Brother of Sir Bobby and a star defender in his own right, he played only for Leeds. Went into management and took Republic of Ireland to the knockout stages in two World Cups. Died in July this year aged 85 and was suffering from dementia.
Bobby Moore — Captain of England and the man who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy. Died aged just 51 in 1993 due to bowel cancer.
Nobby Stiles — His toothless dance after victory at Wembley has become iconic as were his ferocious midfield displays. The Manchester United star died aged 78 on Friday after battling Alzheimer’s.
Alan Ball — Youngest member and man of the match in the 1966 final but sold his winner’s medal to provide for his family — like eight of the 11 players did. Played for 13 clubs before management. Died of a heart attack in 2007 aged 61.
Martin Peters — Scorer of the second goal in the final. Started a career in insurance in 1984 following 67 caps for the national team and spells with West Ham, Tottenham and Norwich. Peters died in December 2019 aged 76, from Alzheimer’s.
Sir Bobby Charlton — Survived the Munich air disaster. With his majestic left foot and crucial goals in 1966, he is widely considered the greatest footballer England has produced. Announced yesterday he is suffering from dementia.
Sir Geoff Hurst — Still the only player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Knighted in 1998, the 78-year-old is retired and lives in Cheltenham with wife Judith.
Roger Hunt — One of Liverpool’s greatest players, Hunt joined his family’s haulage company after retiring from playing in 1972. Aged 82, lives in Warrington.
Sir Alf Ramsey — Mastermind behind the team of ‘wingless wonders’, the manager had predicted England would win the World Cup when he took over in 1963. Died following a heart attack in 1999 aged 79.
The Glasgow study into football and dementia was funded by the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association.
Following its publication, the FA concluded: ‘More research is needed into why players had been affected, but that there is not enough evidence at this stage to make other changes to the way the modern-day game is played.’
Risk factors for dementia also include unhealthy lifestyle, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and being overweight.
Jeff Astle’s daughter, Dawn, is campaigning for more protection for footballers from dementia
One of those additional research projects supported by the FA and PFA is being conducted at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It is analysing the connection between the amount of times a player headed the ballin his career and his brain function, by interviewing 350 former pros.
Professor Neil Pearce, who is leading the study, asks ex-players about matches and training, whether majority of heading takes place, and takes into account their position, which team they played for and at what level, while measuring their responses to questions.
He told Sportsmail: ‘Footballers do have an increased death rate from dementia and that is a great concern. What we will be able to do is work out if this is down to heading or other things.’
Are you an ex-professional footballer, who would like to take part in a study into football and dementia? If so, email [email protected] at the London Schoolof Hygiene and Tropical Medicine or contact Dr Michael Grey at the University of East Anglia at [email protected] .
Sir Bobby Charlton and his family have been thanked for speaking out on dementia after the Manchester United and England great was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
It is understood that Charlton’s wife, Lady Norma, and family agreed for the information to be made public so it could help others affected by dementia.
United issued a statement, saying: ‘Everyone at Manchester United is saddened that this terrible disease has afflicted Sir Bobby Charlton and we continue to offer our love and support to Sir Bobby and his family.’
And now the Alzheimer’s Society has thanked the family for helping to raise awareness.
Kate Lee, Chief Executive Officer at Alzheimer’s Society said: “We’re sending our thoughts to Sir Bobby Charlton and his family following the announcement that Sir Bobby is living with dementia. This helps so much to shine further light on the condition, for which we are hugely thankful.’
More than 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia and the Alzheimer’s Society works to support them and fund ground-breaking research.
The Society believes that more research is needed to explore a link between football and dementia.
‘From our perspective further, in-depth research is needed so we can understand how head injuries and life-style factors are brought together,’ said Dr Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing.
If you require support or information with respect to Alzheimer’s, please contact the Alzheimer’s Society on 0333 150 3456
Sir Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, while his elder brother, Jack, died aged 85 in July following a battle with dementia and lymphoma.
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