Repeatedly heading footballs during a professional career may contribute to brain damage later in life, according to early research conducted by UK scientists. 

Researchers from University College London and Cardiff University carried out post-mortem brain examinations on six former footballers, who had played football for an average of 26 years and were skilled headers of the ball. Each went on to develop dementia in their 60s. 

Four of the former footballers were found to have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), brain injury linked to memory loss, depression and eventually dementia.

“This is an issue close to our hearts and we know only too well the devastating impact such injuries can have on families.”

Their findings are not definitive, however, as each brain also showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease and the researchers are now calling for systematic investigation and large-scale studies to examine footballers’ long-term health and identify at-risk groups of players. 

These tentative findings follow anecdotal reports that players who head balls could be more prone to developing dementia later in life. An inquest into the death of former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle - who died aged just 59 after developing early onset dementia - found frequently heading older, heavier leather footballs during his career had contributed to trauma to his brain. 

The effects of repetitive brain trauma have been widely investigated in other sports, such as boxing, with the British & Irish Boxing Authority (BIBA) recently announcing plans to use hand-held brain scanners at the ringside to detect injury quickly. 

Simon Wilson, national practice lead for serious injury claims at Thompsons, said: “The number of footballers who have developed degenerative brain diseases as a result of heading the ball has been largely under-researched until now. 

“While the scientists leading this study acknowledge that a combination of factors could have led to dementia in these players, their findings certainly warrant further investigation into the subject. Brain damage is an issue taken seriously in other high-impact sports, such as rugby and boxing, and it’s only right that football is afforded the same attention. 

“Our specialist serious injury team regularly works with people who have suffered a brain injury and ensures they and their families have access to the support and treatment they require. This is an issue close to our hearts and we know only too well the devastating impact such injuries can have on families.”