Research shows increased heading at international level since 1960s, adding to pressure to act over dementia risk

Jeremy Wilson
·3-min read
Matches at World Cups from 1966 through to 2018 were examined for the average number of headers - AFP
Matches at World Cups from 1966 through to 2018 were examined for the average number of headers - AFP

The amount of heading in elite international football has increased since the 1960s, according to new research which further undermines the assumption that players from the modern era are at a reduced dementia risk.

Scientific research has already shown that brain function is disrupted by a short heading practice with a modern synthetic ball and this new study, on the basis of data collected by Stats Perform on behalf of the University of Glasgow, studied World Cups since 1966.

Every match in that period was reviewed and, while the number of headed efforts on goal remained remarkably stable, there was a small increase in headed clearances and a large increase in headed passes.

In total, there were an average of 71 headers per game between 1966 and 1990 but that had increased to 93 in the era from 1994 until the most recent World Cup in 2018.

The Glasgow researchers have already proven a clear link between professional football and an increased risk of dying from a neurodegenerative disease.

“These data demonstrate that, at the highest level of global soccer competition, headers are increasing in match play, reflecting an increase in headed passes,” said Dr Willie Stewart, the lead researcher at Glasgow.

“As such, there is no evidence from these data that so called modern day soccer players, playing at the highest international level, might be at lower risk of neurodegenerative disease through reduced exposure to head impacts via heading in match play.”

The findings will further increase the pressure on the football authorities to introduce set limits on heading in training, as proposed by the Telegraph’s ‘Tackle Football’s Dementia Scandal’ campaign and now the Professionals Footballers’ Association.

The Telegraph’s campaign - Tackle Football’s Dementia Scandal
The Telegraph’s campaign - Tackle Football’s Dementia Scandal

Research by the Liverpool Hope University found that a majority of players failed a pitchside concussion test after just 20 headers. Another study by the University of Stirling also showed that there was an immediate disruption in normal brain function and a significant reduction in memory function following as few as 20 regular headers from a corner kick. This did return to normal after 24 hours and Dr Willie Stewart, who was involved in that research, has suggested a break of 48 hours between sessions of 20 headers.

The Telegraph is also campaigning for football to initiate a global taskforce to consider how the sport could evolve to mitigate risk. The wider link between dementia and head trauma is already established and so this would look at how head impacts might be intelligently limited in football, and how the Rules of the Game - already changed 178 times in the last four years for other reasons - could be sensibly adapted.

The Football Association has introduced training limits in youth football, including a ban on heading among primary school age children, but has not so far made any recommendations in adult training. This is despite former players being five times more likely to die of Alzheimers, four times more likely to die of motor neurone disease and at a doubled risk of Parkinson’s.

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham has acknowledged the increased prevalence of neurological disease among former professionals but highlighted how no causal link has been found. Prominent neuropathologists, however, have said that it could take decades to reach that threshold of proof and that the balance of probabilities is now such that preventive measures must urgently be introduced to protect current and future generations..

“It is time to start the process of prevention - I feel deeply frustrated that so little has happened,” said Dr Don Williams, who advised the coroner at the inquest of Jeff Astle in 2002. Astle was found to have died of ‘industrial disease’ as a result of a career heading footballs.