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Bid to kick out dementia risk from football

Emma Hall considers moves to reduce the risk of repeated minor brain trauma among footballers

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Emma Hall is a solicitor who specialises in product liability and medical device injury claims on behaf of injured clients. 
Over the past few weeks, the world of football has been dealt a tremendous blow. Former Manchester United player and 1966 World cup winner Nobby Stiles died after a long illness on 30 October and just two days later, we learned the devastating news that footballing legend Sir Bobby Charlton, had been diagnosed with dementia.

This means that of the 22 players in the 1966 England World Cup squad, five have now been diagnosed with dementia – Sir Bobby Charlton’s brother, Jack Charlton died of the disease in July this year, and former players Martin Peters and Ray Wilson died in 2019 and 2018.  Of those five players, Stiles, Peters and Wilson were all diagnosed with the disease whilst they were only in their 60s.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, ‘Dementia’ is an umbrella term for a series of disorders which are caused by abnormal brain changes.

The changes lead to a decline in cognitive abilities, which can be severe enough to impair a person’s function and ability to lead their normal daily lives. The disease is progressive, but early diagnosis can allow a person to obtain the best treatment to improve their symptoms. Sadly however, no treatment can cure, slow, or stop the progression of this dreadful disease.

In October 2019, Experts at Glasgow University found that former professional footballers were over three times more likely to die from dementia than people of the same age range in the general population.  The research was funded after former England international player Jeff Astle died from dementia at the age of 59, with the inquest into his death noting that him heading heavy leather footballs over the course of his time as a professional player would have caused repeated minor traumas to his brain, which in turn would have contributed to him going on to develop dementia later in life.  

The findings by Glasgow University and the high incidence of former players being diagnosed with dementia is nothing short of alarming, and it is for this reason that the Daily Mail Sport, working alongside Professor William Stewart a Honorary Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Glasgow has launched a campaign to tackle dementia among former professional players.

The campaign, titled “Enough is Enough” sets out a seven-point charter for the Professional Footballers Association and the Football Association to provide funding for vital research into the link between dementia and football, and to provide support for former players who have since been diagnosed with the disease and their families. 

In addition, the charter calls for the International Football Association Board to immediately ratify concussion replacements and for there to be a limit to 20 headers per training session at all levels of the game, with a minimum of 48 hours between training sessions.

This would limit the chance of the players suffering from minor brain traumas which in turn would reduce their risk of going on to develop a traumatic brain injury. 

During an interview on BBC Breakfast, former England player Sir Geoff Hurst MBE highlighted that whilst headers were not always performed during game-play, in training sessions players could spend between 20 minutes and half and hour practising headers. He went on the describe how during wet training sessions, the leather ball could become even heavier, which would increase the risk of a player going on to develop a repeated minor brain trauma.

Whilst the days of playing football with a heavy leather ball may be behind us, it is clear that repeatedly having to perform headers over a long period of time during training sessions could increase the risk of a player going on to develop a traumatic brain injury and dementia in their later years.

With campaigners now asking for dementia to be recognised as an industrial disease, it could be argued that there could be a rise in claims from former players and their families again football clubs and the Football Association for failing to protect the safety and wellbeing of their players in the nature of their work.

It would also allow former players to access disability benefits to get the care and support they need whilst battling this deadly illness.

It is clear that vital research is required into the link between football and dementia, firstly to support those former players who are now at a much higher risk of going on to develop the disease later in life, and to protect current and upcoming players from suffering from repeated minor brain injuries through training and play and from having to deal with the devastating effects that our 1966 World Cup heroes and their families are having to deal with today. 

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