• Football and similar sports – Do they carry a risk of dementia? 03 January 2016 | View comments

  • 29th December 2015 | By David Jolley

    For those of us who turn first to the sports section or back page of the daily paper. Anything which brings together football and dementia is likely to get attention.

    This weekend the Guardian ran the story of American Football, concussion, traumatic encephalopathy and the long-term increased risk of dementia.


    There is a film about to be released.

    When we were in Wolverhampton, Michael Clark and I organised open lectures on mental health matters. One evening we were pleased to invite researchers Andrew Rutherford and Richard Stephens from Keele University who knew a lot more than we did about the relationship between soccer and impairment of cognitive function


    Our interest had been stimulated by the story of Jeff Astle, a West Bromwich Albion centre forward who had been famed for his heading prowess. Jeff died with dementia aged 59 and the coroner linked his condition to the repeated trauma of his working life. Rutherford and Stephens pointed to the many other traumas encountered by players during games and in training. They monitored players throughout games and measured cognition, relating any changes to actual events during the game.

    It was a time when we would regularly see John Terry and others concussed, not by heading the ball, but by heading each other. This is the picture which is now appreciated across a spectrum of sport including soccer for men, women and youngsters, rugby as well as American Football. Despite all the protective clothing and helmets worn in some games, the impact of tackles and unplanned encounters is potentially massive and harmful.



    Perhaps understandably, the sport industry has not been keen to accept the possibility that dementia can be the consequence of people plying their trade. Many players are equally reluctant to believe that they are at risk but evidence mounts and many clubs maintain contact with former players through social clubs. Seeing is believing and people are beginning to take it in and modify practice accordingly.

    My first consultant trainer John Johnson had been involved with research amongst boxers. The work confirmed a condition Dementia Pugilistica www.neuroanatomy.org/2010/005_007.pdf. JJ saw this most impressively amongst Light Weight boxers who made their money as fairground fighters. They might have many rounds every evening. Their technique of riding punches by allowing their neck to extend repeatedly was deemed to contribute most to the damage to brain cells. In this condition and in footballers, the emergence of dementia takes years and so the link to trauma from which people appear to have recovered is not immediately apparent

    Some boxers and some footballers have developed parkinsonian syndromes which have been attributed to their sport – Mohammed Ali in boxing and ray Kennedy in soccer are notable examples.

    There are many other hazards associated with a successful sporting life and systematic studies would be worthwhile. You would think that it should be possible to use some of the fabulous money which sport now attracts to clarify these suspicions and to develop strategies to minimise risks. These could and should be applied to amateur players – Being involved in sport is a marvellous thing and is good for physical and mental health and social integration.

    We have to accentuate the positives but do what we can to eliminate the negatives

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