Dementia in footballers: Study shows position and career length increases risk of neurodegenerative disease

The findings were the same regardless of the era in which players competed; the study included data from players in the 1930s all the way through to the 1990s; Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles both suffered with dementia before they died, while Sir Bobby Charlton has also been diagnosed

Jack and Bobby Charlton
Image: Jack Charlton died after being diagnosed with dementia, and his brother Sir Bobby also has the disease

Professional footballers are at an increased risk of developing dementia depending on the length of their careers and their playing position, according to a landmark study.

The research was based on the health records of around 8,000 former professional footballers in Scotland and found the risk of goalkeepers developing a neurodegenerative disease was similar to general population levels.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Professor Willie Stewart says the increased risk footballers face of neurodegenerative disease is entirely preventable and questions whether heading should remain part of the game.

Outfield players, however, were almost four times as likely as an ordinary member of the public, with defenders developing dementia in later life roughly five times more often than the public at large.

The findings were the same for players regardless of the era in which they competed, with the study including data on players who played in the 1930s all the way through to the 1990s.

The research was conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow and was led by professor Willie Stewart at the university, and is published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Professor Willie Stewart says that the risk of neurodegenerative disease is higher for outfield players in football than goalkeepers - which highlights the potential danger of heading the ball.

It adds to the findings of a previous study of 7,500 former professional footballers that found they were three-and-a-half times more likely to die from dementia than non-players in the same age range.

The new research finds that despite changes in football technology and head injury management over the decades, there is no evidence the risk of neurodegenerative disease risk has changed among professional footballers from around 1930 to the late 1990s.

Jack and Bobby Charlton
Image: The study's findings were the same regardless of the era in which players competed

PFA chief executive Maheta Molango added: "The welfare of our players, past, present and future is at the forefront of everything we do and this data will inform us how best to protect them and improve our services."

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of Research at Alzheimer's Research UK, welcomed the report.

"This well-conducted study of dementia risk in ex-professional footballers is another piece of a large and largely unfinished jigsaw when it comes to understanding dementia risk," she said.

"We will continue to call on footballing bodies, player associations, and governments across to help fund dementia research now, not later, when it is too late."

It follows the deaths of two of English football's greatest heroes - Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles - who suffered with dementia before their deaths. Jack's brother, Sir Bobby Charlton, has also been diagnosed with dementia.

An investigation by Martha Kelner, Sky News' sports correspondent, has found more than half of Burnley FC's first 11 in their championship-winning 1959/60 season have died from or are suffering with dementia.

Dementia and the Boys of '66

By Rob Dorsett, Sky Sports News reporter

AP: England team line up at World Cup 1966
Image: England's World Cup winners of 1966 have been devastated by dementia

Dementia has devastated the Boys of '66.

In total, five members of England's World Cup-winning team have developed dementia. It's led to the death of four of them.

Ray Wilson was the first to succumb, in July 2018, with Martin Peters also dying of dementia, just over a year ago.

Jack Charlton died of the debilitating illness in July 2020, Nobby Stiles in October. A month later it emerged that Sir Bobby Charlton is also suffering from the same condition.

Nobby Stiles in action
Image: Nobby Stiles died in 2020 after being diagnosed with dementia

"I think we knew they weren't well, but it's always a huge shock when you hear they've passed," says Sir Geoff. "We knew Nobby had been in a home for some time, and we knew Jack hadn't been out and about.

"It's just been a nightmare year. The pandemic has meant you aren't out and about talking to people about your emotions as you usually would. In fact, this is the only time I can talk about it, and I'm getting a bit emotional now with you, because it's the first time I've really got to talk about my team-mates."

Fantasy Football is LIVE!

Fantasy Football is LIVE!

Sky Sports Fantasy Football is back for the 2021/22 season. Create a team for free, and you could win £50,000.

Around Sky