A recent study has discovered that certain football positions put players at greater risk of developing dementia in later life. Dr Willie Stewart, lead researcher, believes the sport should have a health warning attached if heading the ball remains in the game.
Players most affected by dementia play in defence where their head is more likely to make contact with the ball compared to their goalkeeping counterparts.
The FIELD (Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk), assessed a sample of 8,000 former football players alongside 23,000 non-football players.
The study, carried out on behalf of the FA and the PFA, builds on previous research from Dr Willie Stewart’s team, who in 2019 proved that football players have a three and a half times greater risk of dying due to a dementia-related condition.
Now we know that the position someone plays in and the duration of their footballing career are two important factors in determining the likelihood of developing the disease.
Players who play in defence are at a five times increased risk than the average population. Forwards have triple the risk compared to the general public.
Goalkeepers don’t appear to have a more significant chance of developing the disease, since they tend not to head the ball.
Playing the game over a long period of time can also up the risk factor.
To address these concerns, the FA has implemented new guidance, asserting that players should not go beyond 10 high impact headers per practice session, with professional football players not to go beyond 10 high impact headers per week.
However, Dr Stewart has stated that the measures don’t go far enough, calling the advice “unscientific”:
“There is no basis to say 10 headers of a certain level will necessarily make a great difference to the risk. The FA based their recommendations on analysis of matches estimated what the forces might be and then used that for training guidance.
“That’s like being stood on the edge of the motorway and guessing cars’ speeds and talking about road traffic measures in a city. It’s not entirely relevant.
“To assess whether 10 high-force head impacts might make a difference, we have to wait 30 to 40 years.”
Dr Stewart went on to suggest that the way forward may be eliminating heading the ball from the game altogether, or else there needs to be a health warning to alert people to the additional dangers of playing:
“If we think that heading in professional football is necessary and the risk of dementia is necessary then perhaps what football should be doing rather than considering concussion substitute protocols that don’t really stand up or limitations on heading in training which have no basis in science, they should be thinking about what football would look like without heading.”
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