Former England football captain heads call for brain health study volunteers

Ex Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams is urging former footballers to sign up to a major study examining the link between heading the ball in football and long-term cognitive decline.
Marouane Fellaini heading a ball during a football match

Evidence from recent studies suggest that former professional footballers are at greater risk of neurological disease. However, the causes are still unclear. The Health and Ageing Data in the Game of Football (HEADING) study, aims to plug this knowledge gap by recruiting approximately 300 former players to examine the possible association with a history of head impacts.

The study team will be contacting all former players who are eligible - aged 50 or more, who were members of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) during their playing career – in the near future. However, any former player who think they are eligible are welcome to contact the study team directly.

The research is funded by The Drake Foundation, and led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM), with support from the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and the Football Association (FA).

Tony Adams said: “Heading is part and parcel of our game. It’s therefore surprising how little research has been undertaken on the risks from doing so repeatedly, as well as concussion.

“As a former professional footballer I’m pleased to support this important study which will boost our knowledge on the potential harms of these head impacts in later life.  I urge my former teammates and opponents to contribute to this research which could impact on the wellbeing of current and future players.”

Through detailed assessments, researchers will gather data on the retired footballers’ playing history, work history and lifestyle factors, while an extensive set of tests will capture physical and cognitive capabilities, in addition to a neurological clinical examination. As well as face-to-face assessments, there will be an option to provide blood and urine samples for future analysis.

Study lead Professor Neil Pearce from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said: “Despite recent strong research, we still don’t know why footballers are at greater risk of neurological disease.

Is this a consequence of heading the ball, concussion or something else about being a professional footballer? This is the first study that will start to provide the answers to these questions.”

PFA Chief Executive, Gordon Taylor said, “In light of the recent findings from FIELD, it is vital that we try to identify the exact cause of the increased risk for neurological conditions in professional football players. We hope that the HEADING study will be a positive step towards gaining that evidence, to enable the necessary steps to be taken to further protect players. It is vitally important for any members contacted by the study to get involved, to ensure the research is able to achieve its objective.”

FA Head of Medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, said: "The HEADING study is one of the research projects that we hope will give some much-needed detail into the long-term health of footballers and the recently published findings of the FIELD study regarding dementia in former professional footballers. I would urge anyone who is contacted to take part in this study to give some of their time to help the game we all love, and I look forward to hearing the outcome of the study."

Lauren Pulling, Programme Manager for The Drake Foundation commented, “Following the soon-to-be completed BRAIN study in retired elite rugby players, we are delighted to further our partnership with this leading group of researchers, with the support of the FA, PFA and Tony Adams himself. We hope this much-needed study will catalyse our understanding of why a career in professional football leads to a higher risk of developing dementias in later life.”

“Many people have waited many years for a study like this,” added James Drake, Chairman of The Drake Foundation. “The Drake Foundation is proud to be funding this work and to be a part of this important step forwards in our understanding of sports-related concussion and its long-term effects, as well as wider insights into neurodegeneration and cognitive health in the general population.”

Former players who think they are eligible to join the study can contact the study team directly.

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