August 3 – Debate over the possible link between repeated heading and suffering from dementia in later life has intensified with a leading researcher suggesting there should be an official health warning.
Dr Willie Stewart of the University of Glasgow says the game must ask whether heading is “absolutely necessary”.
In 2019 a study by Stewart found that former footballers were about three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative brain disease than the general population.
After the latest research, Stewart said a direct connection can now be shown.
“With the current data we’re now at the point to suggest that football should be sold with a health warning saying repeated heading in football may lead to an increased risk of dementia,” he was quoted as saying in the British media. “That’s where we are now, that cannot be ignored.
“In the previous study we didn’t have sufficient data to be able to look at the important factor: exposure to football. What we could say last time was that being a footballer meant your risk of dying with a degenerative brain disease was higher, but we couldn’t say what in football was doing it.”
The latest report says the risk is highest among defenders, who are five times more likely to have dementia than non-footballers.
“I think footballs should be sold with a health warning saying repeated heading in football may lead to increased risks of dementia,” said Stewart.
“Unlike other dementias and degenerative diseases, where we have no idea what causes them, we know the risk factor [with football] and it’s entirely preventable.
“We can stop this now and to do that we have to reduce, if not eliminate, unnecessary head impacts. Is heading absolutely necessary for football to continue? Or to put it another way: is exposure to the risk of dementia necessary for football?
“I’ve yet to see any evidence that heading a ball is good for you. Football is great for you, there is less cancer and cardiovascular problems for players, but there are dreadful levels of dementia and I can’t see the benefit of that.”
The research comes a week after English football published recommended limits on heading for professional and amateur players in training. From next season professional players will be limited to 10 higher-force headers in trainingfrom long passes, corners or free-kicks, whereas in the amateur game players should be limited to 10 headers per week.
But Stewart was critical of those guidelines saying they were based on “unscientific guesswork”.
“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.”
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