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Dementia: New research positions football defenders at most risk of brain disease

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Professor Willie Stewart published research back in 2019 that found former footballers were nearly four times more likely to die of neurodegenerative brain disease than the general population. Now his new study – funded by the Football Association – has identified that defenders are five times more likely to have dementia compared to those who don’t play the sport. Meanwhile, the new research (by the University of Glasgow) found that people in the forward positions are three times more likely than non-football players to get dementia.

And outfield players are four times more likely to develop dementia than the general public who don’t play football.

A person’s risk for developing dementia increased the longer they played the game over a number of years.

Co-author to the study, Dr Stewart, said: “I think footballs should be sold with a health warning saying, ‘repeated heading in football may lead to increased risks of dementia’.”

The “entirely preventable” risk factor can be banned from the game, the researcher suggested.

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This follows on from previous restrictions across the UK for heading in youth teams.

The BBC reported that from next season, professional players will be limited to 10 “higher-force” headers in training.

Meanwhile, amateur games “should be limited to 10 headers per week”.

However, Professor Stewart isn’t so sure a reduction in headers is going to be beneficial.

“There is no basis to say 10 headers of a certain level will necessarily make a great difference to the risk,” he said.

“To assess whether 10 high-force head impacts might make a difference, we have to wait 30 to 40 years.

“Do we wait 30 to 40 years? Or do we say the evidence is sufficiently strong where we should consider a sport without unnecessary head impact?”

Dementia risk

Aside from headers in football, what else can increase your risk of dementia?

Stanford Health Care pointed out “several risk factors” that can increase a person’s risk of developing dementia.

“Several recent studies have found that smoking significantly increases the risk of mental decline and dementia,” the experts said.

This is also true, in terms of evidence, for people who drink large quantities of alcohol.

Furthermore, high cholesterol, diabetes, and increasing age are all risk factors too.

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