A major study assessing whether footballers are at greater risk of degenerative brain disease is ready to be launched as concerns grow about dementia in former players.
After an eight-month evaluation period, Press Association Sport understands a research group will be appointed in the next few weeks to take on the most comprehensive study of its kind, jointly commissioned by the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association.
The group will set out to answer the complex question of whether the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease is more common in ex-professional footballers than in the normal population.
Former England captain Alan Shearer has expressed his concern about the effects heading a ball during his career may have on his long-term health and questioned whether enough had been done by governing bodies to protect players.
“The authorities have been very reluctant to find out any answers. They have swept it under the carpet, which is not good enough,” he told the Daily Mirror.
“Football must look after old players with dementia and put an end to this sense that once you are done playing, you can be put on the scrapheap.”
FA sources have rejected claims it was “swept under the carpet” and in March – in response to growing pressure from the likes of the family of ex-West Brom forward Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 from brain injuries – the governing body set out its plans to tackle the issue with the most comprehensive study done in this area by any organisation.
At the time the FA’s head of medicine Dr Charlotte Cowie said: “This is a crucial issue for the FA and one that we feel passionately about addressing.
“Player welfare is paramount and it is increasingly important that the football authorities investigate further whether there are any potential risks associated with heading the ball, as this is a unique feature of our game.”
There has been criticism of the FA and PFA for not yet establishing whether heading a football is linked to dementia.
While understanding the growing frustration, the FA pointed to the complexity of the issue and the lack of useful research – the last study in 2002 failed because it did not provide a big enough volume of data – for the lack of definitive answers up to now.
They swiftly made moves to bring in concussion guidelines when that was proved to be the cause of brain damage but the evidence around links to dementia is much less clear.
It is hoped this new study can produce initial results within three to four years which will provide a clearer understanding.