Take a header at de­men­tia

It seems log­i­cal that foot­ball is linked to the ill­ness but a re­searcher says it’s not that clear-cut

Mail & Guardian - - Sport & Games - Pi­rate Irwin

Does head­ing a foot­ball give you de­men­tia? That’s the ques­tion neu­ropathol­o­gist Wil­lie Stewart is at­tempt­ing to an­swer by com­par­ing former pro­fes­sional foot­ballers with non­play­ers.

Foot­ball au­thor­i­ties have been ac­cused of drag­ging their feet on this since former Eng­land player Jeff As­tle died in 2002, with in­dus­trial dis­ease cited as the cause of death.

Ex-Eng­land and New­cas­tle cap­tain Alan Shearer has raised the pro­file of the is­sue by speak­ing about his de­men­tia fears af­ter years of head­ing balls.

Stewart is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether there is a direct link, and his team is com­par­ing the med­i­cal his­to­ries of 10000 former foot­ballers with 30000 non­play­ers.

The study, Foot­ball’s In­flu­ence on Life­long Health and De­men­tia Risk, is funded by the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion and the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ballers’ As­so­ci­a­tion and aims to gather hard ev­i­dence about an emo­tive sub­ject.

It was Stewart who, in 2014, said that As­tle had died aged 59 from chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE) stem­ming from head in­juries af­ter ex­am­in­ing the former player’s brain. The con­di­tion is usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with box­ers.

But he is cau­tious in his ap­proach and said delv­ing into big data is cru­cial be­cause the is­sue is clouded by anec­dote and spec­u­la­tion.

He cites the ex­am­ple of three mem­bers of Eng­land’s 1966 World Cup-win­ning team who de­vel­oped Alzheimer’s dis­ease — Martin Peters, who is 74, and Ray Wil­son and Nobby Stiles, both de­ceased.

“Bad sci­ence comes from anec­dotes and they are all we have got,” he told AFP at Queen El­iz­a­beth Univer­sity Hospi­tal in Glas­gow.

“Anec­dotes are quite per­sua­sive as quite a lot of the 1966 win­ning team have de­men­tia, and other foot­ball teams have been brought for­ward with high rates of de­men­tia, but we don’t fully un­der­stand.”

Stewart says it is not a sim­ple mat­ter of cause and ef­fect. “One has to know whether, for in­stance, the other teams in the 1966 World Cup, do they have sim­i­lar lev­els of de­men­tia? Or is it just a quirk of sta­tis­tics that it has fallen on the Eng­land team?”

He says As­tle’s CTE is not nec­es­sar­ily down to head­ing the ball, as is widely as­sumed. “I can see why peo­ple say that be­cause it is a vis­ual kind of thing to hang on, for peo­ple to ex­plain he headed it, that is why his brain was in­jured,” said Stewart. “It may well be, but there is no direct link.”

Stewart sug­gests As­tle’s brain in­jury could have been caused by a clash of heads or be­ing kicked in the head dur­ing a rough-and-tum­ble play­ing ca­reer.

An ap­par­ently higher rate of de­men­tia among former foot­ballers could be as­cribed to other fac­tors.

“What we might find is, yes, on the sur­face it ap­pears the de­men­tia rate is higher than you ex­pect, but that is be­cause we know them as they are high-pro­file and it is an age-re­lated dis­ease and play­ing foot­ball has given them a health­ier life.

“It has seen them live to 70, 80, whereas other guys in the same com­mu­nity are dy­ing in their 60s and not get­ting to the age where one typ­i­cally risks get­ting de­men­tia.”

Stewart says a study in­volv­ing stu­dents from Stir­ling Univer­sity in Scot­land shows there is an ef­fect on the brain from head­ing foot­balls.

“We took them into a lab­o­ra­tory en­vi­ron­ment and used a ma­chine … which fires balls at you,” he said.

“We mea­sured the brain func­tion be­fore and af­ter­wards and found out the elec­tri­cal func­tion of the brain had slowed down a bit and their mem­ory func­tion had slowed down.

“These mi­nor brain im­pair­ments lasted 24 hours,” he said.

Stewart drily ob­served that he would not ad­vise stu­dents who were tak­ing ex­ams to go out and head balls the evening be­fore, but he points out it is dif­fi­cult to ex­trap­o­late the longer-term ef­fects.

Eu­ro­pean gov­ern­ing body Uefa this year com­mis­sioned two stud­ies to look into head­ing in youth foot­ball, show­ing the is­sue is on the agenda.

And Stewart be­lieves that foot­ball au­thor­i­ties would not shirk from tak­ing tough de­ci­sions if head­ing were proved to be linked to de­men­tia.

“A few years down the line, if it came to it that head­ing was high-risk, Fifa or Uefa would ac­cept it and say [we’ve] got to change so these guys and women live long and happy lives af­ter­wards,” he said. — AFP

Fac­tor: Ex-Eng­land cap­tain Alan Shearer has spo­ken out about his fears of de­vel­op­ing brain in­jury. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Im­ages

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