Professional footballers are at heightened risk of
developing a brain disease that can cause
dementia and is usually found in boxers and
American football players, a study published on
The study, published in the journal Acta
Neuropathologica, looked at 14 retired footballers
with dementia who had started playing football
and heading the ball in childhood or their early
Post-mortem examinations carried out on six of
the players found that four of them showed signs
of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), far in
excess of the average rate of 12 percent found in
the general population.
“The findings of our study show a potential link
between playing football and CTE,” the study’s
lead author, Helen Ling from University College
London’s Institute of Neurology, told AFP.
“There’s now a pressing need to identify the risk
“Large-scale study is needed and cooperation
from professional bodies such as the FA (Football
Association) and FIFA will be required.”
It is the first time CTE has been confirmed in a
study involving a group of ex-football players.
The unnamed players were 13 former
professionals and one “committed amateur” who
had played football regularly for an average of 26
They had all been referred to a psychiatry
service in Swansea, south Wales between 1980
The earliest signs of dementia started when they
were in their mid-60s — compared to an average
of the mid-70s for the general population — and
12 of the 14 died with advanced dementia.
Permission from next of kin for post-mortem
examinations to be carried out was granted for
only six of the players.
The players whose brain autopsies showed signs
of CTE also had Alzheimer’s disease, though Ling
said the relationship between the two diseases
“They’re two potential brain disorders that can
cause dementia,” she said after the study was
presented to the media in London.
“It’s most likely that a combination of these
pathologies have contributed to dementia in these
“The most pressing research question is
therefore to find out if dementia is more common
in footballers than in the normal population.”
– Heavy, leather footballs –
The post-mortems were carried out by
researchers from University College London and
Britain’s National Hospital for Neurology and
The study did not show whether the damage
inflicted on the footballers’ brains had been
caused by heading the ball, aerial collisions with
other players or something else.
Unlike boxers and American football players, who
regularly receive major blows to the head,
footballers are unlikely to experience significant
neurological symptoms or losses of
Instead, they are subjected to what the
researchers termed “repetitive, sub-concussive
CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously and a
very small number of former footballers are
known to have had the disease.
They include former Brazil captain Hilderaldo
Bellini and ex-West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff
Astle, who died in 2002 aged 59.
Astle was originally diagnosed with early-onset
Alzheimer’s, but a re-examination of his brain
revealed he had died from CTE that a doctor said
was brought on by repeatedly heading the ball.
An American semi-professional footballer called
Patrick Grange died of CTE in 2012, which
researchers say is a sign the condition cannot
only be linked to the repeated heading of old,
heavy, leather footballs.
Several high-profile former players have
contracted Alzheimer’s, including three of
England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team: Martin
Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson.
England’s FA says it supports research into
degenerative brain diseases in former players
and has called on world governing body FIFA to
Jiri Dvorak, FIFA’s former chief medical officer,
has said there is “very little evidence” linking
footballers’ brain trauma and dementia.
In the United States, children under 11 have been
banned from heading the ball in response to a
lawsuit brought by parents and players
concerned about concussion.
The British researchers say the risk of
recreational footballers developing brain
problems through playing the sport is “extremely