The English, Northern Irish, and Scottish Football Associations have released new guidelines banning children under 12 from heading footballs during practice. This has come in the wake of a new study that shows footballers are more likely to die of degenerative brain disease, such as dementia, than non-players.
Jeff Astle played for England at the FIFA World Cup in 1970. He died in 2002, aged 59, having suffered with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) for a number of years. Dr William Stewart of the Department of Neuropathology at Queen Elizabeth University in Glasgow concluded in 2014 that Astle’s repeated heading of the ball had caused his CTE.
Stewart is now part of a team that has revealed that former professional footballers are 5 times more likely to have a dementia-type illness, and 3.5 times more likely to die from it than members of the general public.
Stewart’s study looked at data from over 7,000 former professional players, and 23,000 controls from the general population.
“Out of those 1,180 footballers in our study who died, 222 had died of neurodegenerative disease-related cause. 228 members out of the control group [of 23,000 people] died of a neurodegenerative disease,” explains Stewart.
“Considering there had been 3 times as many people in the control group, we expected to see 3 times the number of deaths.”
Former players have called for a change in the rules around head injuries and heading the ball ever since the findings were published in October 2019. The England, Northern Ireland, and Scottish Football Associations have now banned children under 12 heading the ball.
Jeff Astle’s daughter, Dawn, has said she is “really pleased” with the change, adding “I read in the guidelines that it said that the FIELD study did not state the cause of the increased risk of dementia, but 99 per cent of people would say it’s either head injury or repeated heading of the ball and the cumulative effects of that which are causing it.”
The FA has reinforced this conclusion in this statement: “The FIELD study did not state that heading a ball was the cause of the increased prevalence of neurodegenerative conditions among footballers, but the decision to update the guidelines has been taken to ‘mitigate against any potential risks’”.
Dr Magalena Letswaart has been finding out over the past few years whether head impact and concussion can lead to dementia. Her team discovered in 2016 that there are detectable changes in the brain after heading the ball just 20 times. “We know that there is a link between traumatic brain damage, such as concussion, and long-term damage”.
Letswaart and her team found that after just 1 session of practice headers, communication between the brain and a muscle in the leg had slowed down. While the participants’ inhibited brain-to-muscle communication levels returned to normal after 24 hours, the long-term consequences remain unknown. It was also found that there were effects on memory after heading the ball.
Both researchers are reluctant to call the ban an informed decision by science. “The truth is we don’t know whether a developing brain is more at risk,” says Letswaart.
“I don’t think they’re losing anything from the game to say children will not head the ball any more. But going further than that into adults and professionals… we’ll need to get some science and take that forward before making decisions on heading.”
It will be interesting to see whether in the future, the same guidelines will be enforced for professional teams, and whether in the long run, this has an effect on the number of professional footballers developing degenerative brain disease.