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Will the Data on Dementia and Heading Alter the Game?

We have recently seen the introduction of new heading guidelines for football players in the Premier League ahead of the 2021/22 season. The changes come on the back of a great deal of research surrounding the link between heading the football and dementia in later life. Some of the players affected by dementia after their careers ended are famous names, including members of England’s 1966 World Cup squad.

Jeff Astle died in 2002 aged 59 and an inquest into his death confirmed it was as a result of result of an “industrial disease” resulting from heading footballs. Sir Bobby Charlton revealed he was suffering from dementia in a newspaper article and his brother, Jack, who died in 2020, also suffered with the disease.

The names above are just a small example of the former professional footballers who have suffered with dementia. The research suggests they were at a greater risk of dementia than the average person due to the fact they were heading the football on a regular basis. A study at the University of Glasgow showed former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases.

So, action must be taken and while the demand on the head in soccer is not quite as extreme as American Football, there have been changes in the protocols surrounding head injuries during matches. Talking about American Football briefly, links have been made between former players and deadly shootings and violence in the United States. Phillip Adams, Aaron Hernandez, Rae Carruth, Travis Rudolph, Tommy Kane, and Donovan Lynch are all former NFL players who have been involved in violent crimes.

Going back to football, and as mentioned above, there have been recent changes in the way head injuries are treated during a match. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved trials for concussion substitutes in 2021 and the English Premier League was one of the leagues to adopt the changes. West Ham United defender Issa Diop was the first player in English football to be substituted using the new protocols. However, the fact Diop was allowed to return to the pitch before being withdrawn was cause for concern.

Players must be taken away from the pitch and a full concussion assessment can take up to 10 minutes. It will be interesting to see if this is something which is introduced into professional football soon.

One of the major changes in terms of heading the football ahead of the 2021/22 Premier League season comes in training. The guidelines state players should be limited to a maximum of 10 “higher-force” headers in any training week. A “higher-force” header is one from a pass of longer than 35 metres or corners, crosses, goal kicks, and free kicks. However, this is only a recommendation and will not be enforced in any way. Therefore, we are not going to see any major changes to the way the sport is played for the time being and it is unlikely heading is going to be reduced or removed from matches any time soon.

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