University of Edinburgh: Risk of dementia in former footballers to be studied

A new research study is to investigate ways to reduce the risk of dementia in former professional footballers.

Close up of a soccer scene at night match with player in a red uniform kicking the ball with power – stock photo
The four-year BrainHOPE project will use brain imaging and a range of tests to compare brain health in mid-life former footballers with members of the general population.

This new study builds on 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 also involves the PREVENT dementia study, which aims to identify risk factors for dementia in mid-life. It has recently opened up to individuals who have played elite or professional rugby and football, to investigate whether there are any increased risks of developing dementia after having playing these sports.

The new project is a collaboration between the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Imperial College London and the wider PREVENT Dementia research partners, which has received £1.3 million of funding from the Football Association and FIFA.

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.

Professor Craig Ritchie
BrainHOPE co-lead, Chair of the Psychiatry of Ageing , Director of Edinburgh Dementia Prevention at the University of Edinburgh, and lead on the PREVENT Dementia Programme
Exploring differences
Researchers will explore whether footballers’ brain health might benefit from using techniques designed to try and reduce the risk of of dementia.

BrainHOPE will recruit 120 former professional footballers aged 40 to 59 years old to compare against 700 general population controls.

The team will conduct brain scans and tests with the footballers after two years to explore how effective the management of risk factors has been.

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.

Professor Willie Stewart
BrainHOPE lead, consultant neuropathologist and Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow
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.

Dr Charlotte Cowie
Head of Performance Medicine at the FA

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