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Gaining a better understanding is our ultimate ‘goal’

PUBLISHED: 09:43 17 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:56 17 February 2017

Norwich's Iwan Roberts wins the header from Grimsby's Tony Gallimore & Mark Lever  Graham Lynch 28/11/1999. Photo: Archant library

Norwich's Iwan Roberts wins the header from Grimsby's Tony Gallimore & Mark Lever Graham Lynch 28/11/1999. Photo: Archant library

More research needed before judging the safety of heading balls, says Nick Conrad

Norwich City legend Iwan Roberts has waded into the debate over children heading footballs. The former Canaries’ striker has suggested that Under 10s should be restricted from engaging in ‘aerial activity’ during kickabouts. I guess it stands to reason that a spherical object hurtling towards you might cause more than just a headache?

A chorus of commentators have chimed in with various views on both sides. I’ve spent the last eighteen months campaigning about issues surrounding Dementia in Norfolk – but I echo the views of healthcare professionals who are asking for more research to be undertaken.

Frankly, I’m not qualified to pass judgement, I have no medical training and my football ‘career’ was very amateur! This report, which cites preliminary evidence, suggests that repeated blows to the head during a footballer’s professional career ‘may’ be linked to long-term brain damage. Worryingly, they claim playing the beautiful game might increase your chances of being diagnosed with dementia later in life. The report is measured and evidenced based.

Here comes the raw science - Researchers from University College London and Cardiff University examined the brains of five people who had been professional footballers and one who had been a committed amateur throughout his life. They had played football for an average of 26 years and all six went on to develop dementia in their 60s. While performing post mortem examinations, scientists found signs of brain injury in four cases. This kind of condition is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia and has been seen in other contact sports such as boxing.

What is unhelpful is sensational reporting which will worry every parent whose child enjoys a trip down the park. So much is fantastically positive about the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ mentality. Do the benefits far outweigh the negatives? Context is key when reading this report. Even the authors of the findings would warn that this is work in progress. The media, myself included, can overhype public health reports playing on our fears.

The Football Association welcomed the study and said research was particularly needed to find out whether degenerative brain disease is more common in ex-footballers. They need to undertake wider studies looking at the structure of the ball and the speed at which the game is played. The heavier balls of yesteryear might be a big part of the problem.

Should wider research provide a robust evidence base that the game needs to be adapted to preclude heading then the required changes should be made for children. We often accuse ‘red tape’ and parents of wrapping up youngster in cotton wool. If the science is there maybe it would be wise, in this case, to listen. I haven’t got a clue what this means for the adult game. A football match played, without the ability to head the ball, is a strange prospect – and one I would hardly welcome. It would fundamentally change the game. I envisage a futuristic scenario where each player has to sign a disclaimer - accepting the risk.

So for mums and dads reading this and worrying –try not to. The risk of dementia increases with age. We can’t be sure that these footballers wouldn’t have developed Alzheimer’s disease even if they hadn’t played football.

The most pressing question is now to find out if dementia is more common in footballers than in the normal population. Like everyone else who loves the beautiful game, or who cares about our children’s welfare, or dementia care – gaining a better understanding is our ultimate ‘goal’.

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