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Groundbreaking study tackles dementia risk in footballers

BrainHOPE builds on the FIELD study to find potential ways to reduce neurodegenerative disease in sport

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A new landmark research study will investigate possible ways to reduce dementia risk in former professional footballers.

The BrainHOPE study builds on the groundbreaking findings of the FIELD study, which found risk of dementia and related disorders among former professional footballers was around three and a half times higher than expected.

BrainHOPE (Optimising Brain Health Outcomes in former Professional and Elite footballers) – led by the University of Glasgow, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and the wider PREVENT Dementia research collaborators – will use brain imaging and a range of tests to compare brain health in mid-life former footballers to general population control subjects already recruited to the PREVENT Dementia study.

In addition, in a world’s first, researchers will explore whether any differences in brain health among footballers might benefit from management of known dementia risk factors designed to try and their reduce risk.

To do this, BrainHOPE – a £1.3million, four year study, jointly funded by the FA and FIFA – will recruit 120 former professional footballers aged 40 to 59, to compare against 700 general population controls. 

The effectiveness of Brain Health Clinic management will then be explored within the footballer subjects, with the brains scans and tests repeated again after two years.

Prof Willie Stewart, BrainHOPE lead, consultant neuropathologist and honorary professor at the University of Glasgow, said: “This is an incredibly important study, and we are grateful to the FA and FIFA for their support to allow it to proceed. 

“Our findings from the FIELD study show there is reason to worry about lifelong brain health in former footballers. 

“BrainHOPE is designed to identify tests that might detect problems early on and, more importantly, possible ways to try and reduce dementia risk for former footballers.”

Prof Craig Ritchie, BrainHOPE co-lead, chair of the psychiatry of ageing and director of Edinburgh Dementia Prevention at the University of Edinburgh, and lead on the PREVENT Dementia Programme, said: “This is such an important study aligned to the main PREVENT Dementia Programme and solidifies an exceptionally strong academic collaboration between Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and Imperial College London. 

“This work will help us understand in detail the association between playing football and brain health and in doing so have a great impact on the wellbeing of current and retired players.”

Charlotte Cowie, head of performance medicine at the FA, said: “The launch of the BrainHope study is another important step in building our understanding of the long-term health of former professional footballers. 

“Forming part of the wider Prevent Dementia study, this research will help us further understand the links between the game and neurodegenerative diseases and also potential early interventions which could help reduce risk or speed of developing dementia.”

The 2019 FIELD study – led by Prof Stewart – remains the largest study to date looking in detail at the risk of neurodegenerative disease in any sport, not just professional footballer players.

The study compared health records of 7,676 former Scottish male professional football players who were born between 1900 and 1976 against those of more than 23,000 matched individuals from the general population. 

Neurodegenerative disease risk among former football players relative to matched controls was then calculated for a range of player positions and career lengths and for decade of birth.

In parallel work led by Prof Stewart, a specific pathology linked to brain injury exposure, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), has been described in a high proportion of the brains of former contact sport athletes, including former amateur and professional footballers.

Former professional football players interested in participating in this research should visit https://preventdementia.co.uk/prevent-sports/

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