FA's head of medicine gives update two months on from FIELD study findings

Friday 20 Dec 2019
Dr Charlotte Cowie joined The FA as head of medicine in April 2016

In October the findings of the FIELD study were published, and what they told us was significant.

When we first commissioned the study in 2017, alongside the PFA, we wanted to find answers to a question that had previously proved very difficult to find – whether degenerative neurocognitive disease, such as dementia, is more common in ex-professional footballers.

After an extensive call for independent research, Dr William Stewart and colleagues at the University of Glasgow and the Hampden Sports Clinic won funding to take forward the FIELD study.

The research was one of the most comprehensive studies ever commissioned globally into the long-term health of former professional footballers and was a crucially-important step in helping football to understand any potential risks in our game. A full summary of the FIELD study findings can be found here.

It is imperative that football now does everything it can to further understand what caused this increased risk and what can be done to ensure that future generations of footballers are protected. We are now two months on from the publication of the study and we are as committed as ever to taking important steps to improve the game and to explore new areas of research.

The FA’s independently-chaired research taskforce has instigated a review of possible changes to heading coaching and training at all levels to decrease overall exposure to heading without compromising technique. They have also suggested that improvements to the management of concussion at pitchside. While the risk shown in the FIELD study is not understood at this stage, these are potentially-important preventive measures.

The FA is currently supporting two research programmes looking into brain function in football. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is conducting a live cohort study looking for the early signs of impaired neurocognition (brain function) in ex-professional players and linking this to reported concussion and heading frequency in those players. This study is funded by the Drake Foundation and supported by The FA.

In addition, Nottingham University is currently looking at an arthritis and neurocognition study in ex-professional footballers looking for early signs of impaired neurocognition in ex-professional players, comparing them with an age-matched control from the normal population. The neurocognition arm of this study is 50 per cent funded by The FA.

We will also put out a new call for research in 2020. Our research taskforce will formulate a new research question and advise on the selection process for further research in this area.

Importantly, we believe that this is not simply a problem for English football. It is our belief that all areas of football should come together and work as one to support and complement further research, and we will continue to work with UEFA and FIFA to identify next steps and support their current work on concussion management and heading research.

While bodies like The FA can fund research and support it, it is clear that future research in this area will rely on current and former professional footballers giving their time to researchers to help them understand their health better and what, if anything, makes them different to those who have not played football professionally.

There will be a number of studies recruiting current and former professional footballers, and we would urge anyone who is contacted to speak with the researchers and find out how they can get involved. It is a way for footballers to understand their own health better and to help players of the future. Only with this combined effort can we move the health of footballers forward and understand football’s effect on the brain better.

Momentum is crucial on such an important matter, and we will continue to help drive this agenda both domestically and internationally in the new year.

By Dr Charlotte Cowie Head of Medicine at The FA