Football and Dementia: A Clear Link?

Sunrise UK  |  March 15, 2017

Following recent news that former footballer Billy McNeill is living with dementia has sparked a new debate over the link between football and brain damage. Recent research has suggested that repeatedly heading a football can have a lasting effect, and that more must be done to understand the ways in which playing sport can influence the chances of developing dementia.  

Scientists from University College London (UCL) recently published findings based on six post-mortems of former footballers, discovering that all experienced a tearing of their brain membrane, consistent with chronic, repetitive head impacts from football. This is something that only 6% of the general population go through.  

In addition, four out of the six players developed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive condition caused by repeated brain trauma.

The players developed Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, in their mid-60s, an average of 10 years before most people show signs of the condition. This may not only have resulted from persistent heading of the football, but from rapid decelerations and physical impacts with other bodies.

Whether or not this study of six former players is enough to draw a definite conclusion about the link between football and dementia is a matter of debate. It is very difficult to know whether or not the six people would have gone on to develop dementia if they had not played football.

And there are a wide range of other potential causes of the condition, both genetic and environmental. Family history, genes, and lifestyle choices can all have an effect. The chances of developing the condition can be reduced through regular physical activity, not smoking, restrained alcohol consumption and healthy eating. Sunrise’s focus on serving nutritional food to its residents is informed by this knowledge.

Despite the array of factors that can cause dementia, the effect of sport is something that is seen as increasingly important and worthy of more attention. It is not only football that has been highlighted for its relationship with the condition. Boston University’s CTE centre found that 90 of 94 former American Football players who were studied tested positive, for example.

In enhancing our knowledge and understanding of dementia, it looks more and more likely that sporting injuries are something that will be taken into account.