Some neurologists have, for a long time, believed the impact of footballers heading the football could cause long-term damage to their brains through repeated concussion and dementia. Following a BBC documentary featuring Alan Shearer looking at the problem, a £1m fund for neurological research will hopefully answer that question for good. The Drake Foundation began as recently as 2014; their mission was and is to understand the short and long-term impact of concussion injuries in sport, both professional and amateur.
What They Hope to Achieve
This is not the first such study for The Drake Foundation. Two years ago, they began a study into the effects of rugby on the brain. Somewhere in Edinburgh, there are donated brains belonging to deceased rugby players that will help neurological researchers understand whether and what causes professional sport has on the brain. So far, they have found:
• American footballers are at greater risk of a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy leading to mood swings, changes in personality and memory loss, all related to head traumas while playing. Many rules in the game have been changed to reduce the risk
• Staying with American Football, a study in Boston of 202 former players showed a staggering 87% of them had CTE
• Rugby has similar instances of head trauma and now a small study has shown this is the case in football, which is why the major £1m study is going ahead. Football does not have the same level of impact as American Football or Rugby, so heading the ball is a probable cause
• CTE is also common in boxers, a sport where competitors aim shots directly at the head.
The Football Problem
Investigations into the brains of six former footballers who developed dementia before their death found that four had instances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This was a small study, nowhere near large enough to come to a definite conclusion, and the UCL team who conducted this test were keen to emphasise the limited nature of their experiment. They also pointed out that a number of other factors could have contributed to the dementia. Alzheimer’s UK also spoke out, stating that more research into CTE, dementia and its links to head trauma was required.
But the one enduring case that has inspired the investigation, just as it did 15 years ago at his death, is Jeff Astle.
The Case of Jeff Astle
The BBC documentary on the potential risks of headers in football highlighted Jeff Astell who died aged 59 in 2002. Considered a West Bromwich Albion legend, he played for England just five times between 1969 and 1970. Before his untimely death, he’d developed dementia. Even the coroner stated that head trauma related to repeated heading of the ball led to brain damage that caused the dementia that led to his premature death. Astle was revealed to have CTE during the post-mortem investigation.
A case was put together by the Professional Footballer’s Association and the Football Association to examine the possible causes of his CTE. The programme was eventually dropped due to technical difficulties. However, Astle’s family have never given up on the investigation and will no doubt welcome the news of the study that could lead to changes in the laws of the game. In the 15 years since his death, no seminal studies have been carried out and no rules have changed.
There is already an expectation that in line with The Drake Foundation grant, the Football Association will now launch an investigation of its own. However, The Drake Foundation intends to wait to hear the FA’s plans before deciding where to focus their campaign.