LONDON: Footballers past the age of 65 are more likely to develop poorer brain health than the general population, according to a study published on Friday.
The SCORES project, based at the University of East Anglia in eastern England, uses online systems to assess people’s cognitive function and monitor deterioration in brain health.
The project involves 145 professional footballers, including former Crystal Palace striker Mark Bright and ex-Norwich duo Jeremy Goss and Iwan Roberts.
While footballers in the 40-50 age group outperform the general population on ratings, this is not the case as they get older.
The SCORES report data follows research from the University of Glasgow’s FIELD study, which found footballers were three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases than members of the general public.
This research also led to renewed calls for better protection for players from concussions and the long-term effects of repeated header play.
And while the physical activity associated with life as a footballer helped players with their brain health in the years just after retirement, those benefits waned over time.
“When they reach 65 – that’s when things start to go wrong,” said SCORES lead researcher Dr. Michael Grey.
“Those over 65 performed worse when examined for things like reaction time, executive functioning, and spatial navigation. These are early warning signs of deteriorating brain health.”
dr Gray added that the SCORES study is planned to follow her group of footballers for the rest of their lives.
“This will give us a really clear picture of the potential damage caused by the header,” he said, while adding a larger sample size was needed to draw further conclusions.
The study currently includes 55 former players aged 65 and over, whose results were compared to the 27 non-gaming members of the study group aged 65 and over, as well as a normative group of thousands of participants from other studies who did the same testing.
SCORES – which stands for Screening Cognitive Outcomes after Repetitive Head Impact Exposure in Sport – is also trying to gather more data from former female footballers, amid concerns they may be at an even greater risk of dementia than their male counterparts.
The family of 1966 England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles are among a group of players and their relatives’ families who want to sue the Football Association for failing to protect players from brain injury.
Stiles died of dementia in October 2020 at the age of 78. He was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head.
While boxing has long been a concern because it allows blows to the head, other sports are now facing the problem of brain injury.
For example, Steve Thompson is one of dozens of rugby union players taking legal action against several governing bodies for negligence.
The 44-year-old, a member of the England team that won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia.