The Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association have 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.
Following two years of research and development, The FA and the PFA have now confirmed the next step in their commitment to commissioning an evidence-based study into the long-term effects of participation in football.
This new study, titled ‘Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk’ [FIELD], is scheduled to start in January 2018.
The appointment of the research team, led by Dr Stewart, was made by The FA Expert Panel in Concussion following an open tender process to agree the parameters of the new independent research.
Dr Stewart and colleagues in Glasgow have extensive research expertise in brain injury, public health and sports medicine.
They have been tasked with conducting studies to address the question: 'Is the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease more common in ex-professional footballers than in the normal population?'
The FIELD study is designed to look at a wide range of physical and mental health outcomes, including neurodegenerative disease, in approximately 15,000 former professional footballers and compare these results to matched general population health data.
"In the past decade there have been growing concerns around perceived increased risk of dementia through participation in contact sports, however, research data to support and quantify this risk have been lacking,” said Dr Stewart, consultant neuropathologist at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
"Through the FIELD study we hope to be able to provide some understanding of the long-term health impact of football within the next two to three years."
FA CEO Martin Glenn added: "This new research will be one of the most comprehensive studies ever commissioned into the long-term health of former footballers.
“Dementia can have a devastating effect and, as the governing body of English football, we felt compelled to commission a significant new study in order to fully understand if there are any potential risks associated with playing the game.
"The FA’s Head of Medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, has been instrumental in commissioning this research and also ensuring that the study will be both objective and rigorous."
Gordon Taylor OBE, PFA Chief Executive, said: "The PFA is and always has been committed to a duty of care for all past, current and future members and has lobbied the football authorities to join with us on all aspects of health and safety.
"The regulations in place for concussion and heart screening are testimony to this. Neurological problems in later life which may be connected to concussion, head injuries and heading the ball have been on our agenda for the last twenty years.
"Research undertaken so far has been inconclusive and we are now fully appreciative of The FA’s support in establishing a robust, comprehensive research strategy which will help determine whether the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease is more common in former professional footballers than in the normal population. In the meantime we will continue to offer help to all our former members and families in a variety of ways."
The FA and the PFA will jointly-fund the research and the sports concussion research charity Drake Foundation will project manage the study, adding another level of independence and credibility to the findings.
The Drake Foundation was founded in 2014 and is a leading authority on head injuries in sport, committed to improving evidence-based measures for the understanding of head injuries in sport, based on scientific research and insight.
Dr Stewart was one of the founder members of The FA Expert Panel in Concussion, which was established in 2015 to share expertise and knowledge in this area. During the tender and consultation process for this new research study, Dr Stewart stepped away from his role on the Panel prior to this research call to protect the integrity of the submission and selection process.
Peter Hamlyn MBBS BSc MD FRCS FISM, a leading consultant spinal and neurological surgeon and chair of The FA Expert Panel in Concussion said: "When the Panel was brought together two years ago, our first focus was to ensure that football had appropriate protocols and guidelines on concussion. These were published and distributed to every club in the country for the professional and grassroots game.
"We then turned our attention to potential long-term neurological effects of careers in football. There have been many previous studies all of which have proved inconclusive in regards even the most basic questions.
“So we have focused our initial endeavour on answering whether footballers are indeed more likely to suffer long-term brain injuries than the general population. Only by conclusively knowing this can we make progress.
“We hope this new study will provide a much needed leap forward in our understanding."