February 4, 2023

According to groundbreaking new research, professional soccer players are more likely to have poorer brain health after turning 65 compared to the general population.

The study, which compared 75 former male professional footballers, including former Norwich players Iwan Roberts and Jeremy Goss and Crystal Palace striker Mark Bright, with non-footballers found that footballers’ brain health tended to be better when they played in the were forty.

At age 65, however, they performed worse when assessed on tests for reaction time, executive function and spatial navigation, which is when the effects of repeatedly heading soccer balls seem to have more of an impact on the brain.

Lead researcher and sports concussion expert Dr Michael Gray, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Health Sciences, said: “We know that heading the ball is associated with an increased risk of dementia in professional footballers. But until now, little was known about when players start to show signs of brain health decline.

“We use advanced technology to test for early signs of cognitive dysfunction that are recognizable long before memory problems or other noticeable symptoms become apparent. This is the first time this kind of research has been done and these are the first results as we monitor the brain health of our participants over the next few years.”

In 2019, a landmark study by Prof. Willie Stewart and researchers from the University of Glasgow found that former professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population. However, it was based on death certificates in Scotland, while this new study tracks brain changes in living people.

Dr. Gray said: “In the 40 to 50 age group, the footballers perform slightly better than the normal group. But when they reach 65, things start to go wrong.

“This shows us that the exercise associated with playing soccer is good for the brain, but the negative effects of contact sports start to show up later in life.”

Dr. Gray said the project began after conversations with Dawn Astle, who lost her father, Jeff, to accumulated brain trauma. “She said to me, ‘Professor Stewart’s results are shocking, but nobody looks at people who are still alive,'” Gray said. “And that’s where the study was born.”

He wants to expand his research to investigate the effects of contact sports on the brain health of women and amateur and recreational athletes and is calling for volunteers to join his Scores [screening cognitive outcomes after repetitive head impact exposure in sport] project.

“We know that when the head comes into contact with another object, such as a ball or fist, and the brain wobbles in the skull, damage is done,” he said. “We call it subconcussive damage. It does not cause concussion, but there is damage to the underlying structures in the brain.”

“And what we know is that during a career where we do this, especially for professional men, this damage results in some degree of neurodegeneration. It is therefore very important that we monitor the brain health of people who participate in sports.”

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