In 2018, The Football Association [The FA] and the Professional Footballers' Association [PFA] appointed the University of Nottingham to conduct an independent research study into the long-term brain health of former professional footballers.
University of Nottingham’s FOCUS study, led by Weiya Zhang at the Versus Arthritis Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, was commissioned as part of The FA and the PFA’s ongoing commitment to building a greater understanding of the link between football and dementia.
The first findings from the FOCUS study have now been peer reviewed and published by Sports Medicine – Open:
The findings from this part of the FOCUS study supports previous research that former professional footballers may be at higher risk of neurocognitive disease than the general population. The new report states that 2.8% of retired professional footballers in their study reported medically diagnosed dementia and other neurodegenerative disease compared to 0.9% of controls. This means that the former professional footballers in the study were found to be 3.46 times more likely to have neurodegenerative diseases compared to the control group. The study also showed that retired football players in the study were twice as likely to fall below established thresholds in some dementia testing than the general population. Further findings from the FOCUS study will be published in due course.
The FA’s Head of Medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, said: "The FA and the PFA jointly commissioned the FOCUS study in order to gain additional insight into the findings of the FIELD study, and to further examine any potential link between neurodegenerative disorders in former professional footballers.
"The FOCUS study worked with an established group of former professional footballers that were participating in research and was able to review their brain health, and it supports the previous findings in the FIELD study which suggest an increased risk for neurodegenerative disease in former professional footballers than in the general population.
"This is an extremely complex area of our game, but we are committed to working collectively with our stakeholders to help grow our knowledge in this area through further medical and expert analysis."
The PFA’s Head of Brain health, Dr Adam White, said: "This is an important new study which supports previous evidence suggesting that footballers are at greater risk of dementia and poorer cognitive functioning in later life.
"Studies such as this, and the data and evidence they produce, are critical to our understanding in this area. They ensure that targeted and evidence-led action can be identified and taken to support and protect players at all stages of their career. Continued investment in this type of research will remain absolutely vital."
The FA has led the way in taking steps to help reduce potential risk factors within the game whilst ongoing research continues in this area. This includes establishing industry-leading concussion guidelines, introducing the world’s most comprehensive heading guidance at every level of the professional and amateur game in England, and implementing a new trial to remove deliberate heading in football matches across U12 level and below.
The findings of the FOCUS study will be shared with both FIFA and UEFA, and The FA has reiterated its support for further research from across the wider game to help build a better understanding of players’ brain health and wellbeing.
If you have any questions or concerns specifically related to Dementia or Alzheimer’s, please contact the helplines at Alzheimer's Society [www.alzheimers.org.uk] on 0333 150 3456
Support is also available to former professional footballers who have concerns about their brain health. This includes the Advanced Brain Clinic, which is funded by The FA and provides confidential specialist assessment and advice for retired, elite, male and female football players.