Footballers are more likely to develop worse brain health in later life than non-sportspeople, leading to further concerns over heading in the game.
A study of 145 former elite footballers by the SCORES project found individuals’ cognitive function once they reached the age of 65 was “significantly worse” than the general population in the same age group.
It follows work done by the FIELD study at the University of Glasgow, which found footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease.
The Scottish FA announced new guidelines on training exercises involving the heading of footballs late last month which will see the practice banned on the days before and after matches.
Campaigners previously called for greater protection for players against concussion as well as the sub-concussive impacts of heading a ball.
Lead researcher and sports concussion expert Dr Michael Grey said: “The physical exercise associated with professional football keeps their bodies and brains in tip-top shape, and this extends to their retirement.
“But when they get to 65 – that’s when things are starting to go wrong. The over-65s performed worse when assessed for things like reaction time, executive function, and spatial navigation. These are early warning signs for deteriorating brain health.
“This shows us that the exercise associated with playing football is good for the brain, but the negative effects of contact sport do begin to appear later in life.
“These assessments are ongoing, and the participants are being monitored for changing brain health over time, so we will hopefully follow our cohort of former footballers for the rest of their lives. This will give us a really clear picture of the potential damage caused by heading the ball.”
The study includes 55 former players aged 65 and over, whose results were compared to the 27 non-playing members of the study group aged 65 and over and also to a normative group containing thousands of participants amalgamated from other studies who have done the same tests.
In the 40-to-50-year-old age category, ex-players were found to be performing better in the assessments than the ‘normal’ group, but that this was not the case among older individuals.
Scottish clubs have also been told to plan and monitor heading activity in training to reduce the overall heading burden under the new rules.
A study was conducted by the SFA to understand current heading practices, with 50 SPFL and SWPL clubs surveyed.
More than 70% of managers and coaches and 64% of players were found to support the introduction of heading guidelines.
Dr Grey added: “What we are seeing is that in the 40-50-year-old age group, the footballers are performing a bit better than the normal group.
“We know that regular exercise is really good for brain health, and our research confirms that professional footballers have improved brain health in their 40s compared with non-footballers.
“This research highlights the need to investigate ways we can limit the damage to the brain as people play sport and to monitor brain health as we get older.”