In 2017, The FA and the PFA appointed Dr William Stewart and colleagues at the University of Glasgow and the Hampden Sports Clinic to lead an independent research study into the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease in ex-professional footballers. This is one of the most comprehensive studies ever commissioned globally into the long-term health of former professional footballers.
The FIELD study assessed the National Health Service records for 7,676 men who played professional football in Scotland, of which 1,180 have since passed away. The players studied were born between 1900 and 1976, with two thirds of those who had passed away born between 1926 and 1951. The FIELD study was only possible to do now due to the recent availability of crucial NHS Scotland data for independent analysis.
The former professional footballers were socio-demographically matched through NHS medical records against a 3:1 control sample of 23,028 men and their health records compared.
On average, the former professional footballers in this study lived three and a quarter years longer and were less likely to die of many diseases such as heart disease or lung cancer. However, they were more likely to die of dementia. The research found that the health records of 11% of the former footballers who had passed away stated that they had died from dementia, compared to around 3% for the socio-demographically matched sample.
The study showed through statistical analysis on the full data set that the professional footballers in this research were around 3.5 times more likely to die of dementia than the matched population. However, overall, this group of former professional footballers did not on average die earlier of dementia than dementia sufferers in the general population.
As you would expect, there are many questions relating to this data that do not, at present, have answers. For example, The FIELD study was not able to determine what exactly causes the increased rates of dementia. The study does not determine whether the cause is due to concussions suffered by the group of professional footballers, or concussion management, or heading of the football, or style of play, or the design and composition of footballs over the years, or personal lifestyle, or some other factor.
In order to consider next steps, we constituted an independently chaired Medical & Football Advisory Group which has reviewed the findings. It recommended that we re-issue both the current FA Concussion Guidelines and best-practice advice for coaching heading, while also asking football to consider further steps to improve head injury management, for example by supporting UEFA’s proposals to introduce concussion substitutes.
The Medical & Football Advisory Group also concluded that more research is needed into why players had been affected, but that there is not enough evidence at this stage to make other changes to the way the modern-day game is played.
In addition, the Medical & Football Advisory Group has recommended that the best way we can support the next phase is by convening a specialist Research Taskforce to assimilate the research currently available and set the direction for new research to be commissioned both domestically and globally.
It's now incumbent on the wider game to gain a greater understanding of the potential cause for the link with dementia and whether or not the results from this historic group of former professional footballers relates, in any way, to the modern-day professional footballer. We've written to both FIFA and UEFA to offer our full support on future research in this area, as well as share the findings of the FIELD study with them.
Dementia is a terrible illness and we're committed to doing everything possible to better understand the issues and get the answers needed.
If you have any questions or concerns specifically related to Dementia or Alzheimer’s, please contact the helplines at Alzheimer’s Research UK on 0300 111 5111.