LONDON • Former professional footballers are 31/2 times more likely to suffer from dementia and other neurological diseases, a landmark British study has found, confirming a long-suspected link between the sport and brain damage.
A 22-month research project by the University of Glasgow's Brain Injury Group also discovered a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer's, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson's.
The report was unable to establish whether higher levels of brain disease was due to repeated concussions, heading leather footballs, or some other factor.
However, the Football Association (FA), which helped fund the research, said it would be setting up a task force to examine the potential causes more deeply.
The family of former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 of what a coroner said was an "industrial disease" partly caused by heading footballs during his career, said they were shocked at the scale of the problem.
"I am staggered even though my own research and instinct was always that there was a serious problem," said his daughter Dawn Astle, who has been contacted by more than 400 families of former players with dementia.
"We knew dad could not be the only one. We just wanted to see that football cared enough to find out the scale of the problem, to do the right thing and be there for these people when they need them most.
"Whatever they do next, it must be across all parts of the game."
LESS AIR TIME
The number of aerial challenges has already been reduced significantly... as we have changed to smaller pitches and possession-based football.
MARK BULLINGHAM, FA chief executive.
The FA confirmed that despite the study, which used recently digitised National Health Service Scotland data to compare the causes of death of 7,676 former male professional players who were born between 1900 and 1976 against those of more than 23,000 people from the general population, there was not yet enough evidence to change any aspect of the game.
"Our research shows the number of aerial challenges has already been reduced significantly over the years as we have changed to smaller pitches and possession-based football," the FA chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said.
"However, as new evidence comes to light, we will continue to monitor and reassess all aspects of the game."
Data from Opta backs up Bullingham's assessment, with high crosses in the Premier League having declined from a peak - since Opta records began in 2006 - of 38.2 per game in 2008-09 to a low of 24.2 last season.
However, the research is still bound to increase the pressure on the International Football Association Board, which meets in Zurich today, to consider implementing rules that allow "concussion substitutes" if a player gets assessed for a head injury during a match.
Many doctors and former players have been critical of the slow response of the Professional Footballers' Association to the dementia problem over the past decade, with Chris Sutton, whose father Mike - a former Norwich player - suffered from dementia, calling for an apology.
However, the PFA's deputy chief executive, Bobby Barnes, said the organisation now better understands the scale of the problem. He added that five members of the PFA had also agreed to donate their brains to medical science after they die.