Alzheimer’s Research UK Welcomes Pro Soccer’s Plan for Brain Health

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by Mary Chapman |

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Alzheimer’s Research UK said it “welcomes” a plan by the Football Association (FA) and other soccer governing entities to better understand and promote brain health in English football, calling the new efforts to protect players “a step forward.”

In addition to the Football Association’s research task force, the joint action plan was produced by the Premier League, the English Football League, and the Players Association.

“As the UK’s leading dementia research charity, we welcome a joint action plan on understanding, promoting, and protecting brain health in English football put forward by the FA’s research task force,” Susan Kohlhaas, PhD, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the U.K.’s leading dementia research nonprofit, said in a press release.

“We’ve been calling for stakeholders in the footballing world to come together since evidence shed light on the link between football and dementia,” Kohlhaas said.

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“We recognize this collaborative approach is a step forward, and this plan must now be delivered in earnest,” she added. “Understanding, promoting, and protecting brain health throughout life is important. We know exercise has huge benefits for brain health, and Alzheimer’s Research UK are currently undertaking a wide-ranging review to investigate the links between sport and dementia risk in more detail.”

The joint FA plan primarily will seek to:

  • Conduct research to better understand the reasons former professional soccer players have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases
  • Increase both awareness and education
  • Support current players and those with disorders such as Alzheimer’s

The plan now is in a period of consultation in which the FA will seek views from outside the organization to determine where the effort goes from this point of inception.

“Understanding the risk factors of neurodegenerative disease in football is an incredibly complex area of medical science which requires exploration of many different lines of research,” Mark Bullingham, the FA’s CEO, said on the association’s webpage.

“Football is working together to try to build a more complete picture by supporting a variety of projects,” Bullingham said. “Until we have a greater level of understanding, we are also reducing the potential risk factors. We have already done this for heading this year by introducing the most comprehensive guidelines anywhere in the world, covering the youth and adult game at all levels.”

What’s called “heading” in English football is a common technique in which players intentionally strike the ball with their heads to pass, shoot, or clear.

“This new joint action plan will further help to build our understanding of across English football of this complex area,” Bullingham added.

The danger of dementia in professional soccer was underscored last year following the death of England’s Nobby Stiles who — along with several of his 1966 teammates on the World Cup-winning team — had been diagnosed with the disorder. According to news reports, Stiles, who died at age 78, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia at age 60.

To lower the risk of brain injuries among patients, the British government was urged by a parliament committee earlier this year to establish a required minimum standard protocol for concussions across sports.

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“Dementia isn’t an inevitable part of getting older and there are steps we can take to look after our brains,” Kohlhaas said in the Alzheimer’s Research UK statement.

“Ultimately, we want everyone to know the key ingredients to good brain health and to empower them to act on that knowledge,” she said.

The nonprofit works with its partners to supply an interactive e-learning program called Think Brain Health, Kohlhaas said, calling it an “engaging tool to raise vital understanding of dementia and teach employees about how improving brain health can help reduce their risk of developing the condition.”

The soccer governing bodies each expressed a commitment, on the FA’s website, to making needed changes to aid player safety.

“A joined-up approach is essential to improve the health and safety of our current and future members,” said Maheta Molango, the PFA’s CEO. “A coordinated response is also required to provide comprehensive and dedicated support to our former players, and their families, currently living with dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.