Modern footballers could be at greater risk of neurodegenerative disease from head injuries than their predecessors, the academic leading a landmark study into the phenomenon has said.
The Field study, jointly commissioned by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association to study dementia and other neurological diseases among retired players, last year observed a risk of such conditions three and a half times greater than among the general population.
Assumptions that a lighter ball makes neurodegenerative disease less common than it used to be are misplaced, according to Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University, the consultant neuropathologist leading the Field study.
“I wouldn’t predict that players in 2020 are at any less risk [of neurodegenerative disease] than the players of the 50s, 60s or 70s,” Stewart said. “People suggest that because the ball is lighter or that players are training at higher intensity that the risk has gone away. There’s nothing to support that at all. Quite the opposite, maybe it’s got worse.”
The Field study has been looking at the potential damage caused to players by heading the ball during matches and training. Stewart argues that while old leather balls might have been heavier, because of the absorption of water, the ball is now hit harder and faster and this may lead to more damaging impacts.
“It’s the speed more than the weight that has the significance in this. The modern ball stays light, but if you hit it and it travels faster and lands at a higher speed it may be causing more problems.”
Examining the potential differences in damage sustained by different generations of players is one aspect the Field study intends to examine in its remaining time, with research funded until 21 February.
In evidence released on Wednesday, the study found a much lower risk of the most common mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, among former players. It said they were “approximately half as likely to be admitted [to hospital] for anxiety and stress-related disorders”, conditions that include depressive disorder, alcohol use disorders, drug use disorders, and bipolar and affective mood disorders.
The findings could be explained by a greater cardiovascular health among retired players, according to Stewart. “It may just be a facet of these guys living healthier lives with lower health issues in general. What it does is put into striking contrast the high levels of neurodegenerative conditions we do have.”
Stewart was critical of the delay in introducing concussion substitutes into football, with Fifa having delayed trials because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “For a sport that had done virtually nothing, we’ve seen a change to heading training and exposure in youth levels which is fantastic,” Stewart said.
“We’ve seen talk of a new approach to looking at concussion in the adult game, but we haven’t yet seen any delivery on that. We’re still seeing football players assessed on the pitch for potential brain injury for a minute or two and then sent back into the field. In no other sport at this level is that acceptable.”