Dementia researcher urges female ex-footballers to take part in brain study

Jamie Gardner
·5 min read
Researchers into the impact of heading in football want more female players to help with their studies into dementia (Getty)
Researchers into the impact of heading in football want more female players to help with their studies into dementia (Getty)

The leader of a study into changes in brain function among footballers is desperate for female ex-professionals to come forward, as he fears dementia could be an even greater issue among women who play the game than men.

Dr Michael Grey, the lead researcher on the SCORES Project at the University of East Anglia, has more than 35 male ex-pros in his study group including Iwan Roberts and Mark Bright, but it does not contain a single female who played in the professional ranks, even after he dropped the lower age limit from 50 to 40.

He said he had received no assistance from either the Football Association or the Professional Footballers' Association in recruiting women for the study, which uses tests on tablets and laptops to track changes in brain function among participants.

"I don't know why the PFA or the FA are reluctant but they have known about us since October last year, I actually contacted them before that," he told the Press Association.

"I don't know why they won't get behind us and help us spread the word about the study but the fact is thus far there's been no involvement from them.

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"It would have been a lot easier if those two organisations would get behind us and help us recruit women. I do not understand why they don't want to be involved."

It is understood the FA disputes any formal request for support was made.

The governing body told PA it had "helped to lead the way in ground-breaking research into the links" between dementia and football and had "a clear and unwavering commitment, both financially and with resource, to support objective, robust and thorough research going forward".

The FA and the PFA co-funded the FIELD study by the University of Glasgow which identified that former footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.

That study focused on men, and Dr Grey said research into the impact of playing football on women was urgently needed.

"One of the important things is to look at the population in the UK at the moment - 61 per cent (of those suffering with dementia) are women," he said.

"Part of the reason for that is that dementia is a disease we're more likely to get as we get older, and on average women live longer than men. That explains part of it but it doesn't explain all of it.

Dr Michael Grey wants ex-professional women to assist his dementia studyPA
Dr Michael Grey wants ex-professional women to assist his dementia studyPA

"In football specifically, if you look at concussions, women experience concussions to a greater extent than men do.

"We do not know if that extends to sub-concussive insults, which really is the big factor for neurodegeneration.

"But it's likely, I think, given that women experience concussion to a greater extent than men do, that they may also have greater damage through these sub-concussive injuries.

"We simply don't know but it makes sense that might be the case, and that's why it's so important that we study women as well as men."

Dr Grey warned his study had only a "few months" left before it ran out of funding, and not received any financial support from the FA or PFA.

"I've had no contact at all from the FA or the PFA since I contacted them more than a year ago. I would welcome some assistance from them," he said.

"We've got a few months before I think we're going to be in a little bit of trouble, and that's because I have to pay for each and every one of these tests.

"We're good for another few months, but I'm also confident that this is important enough that we will find sources (of funding). I'm positive that something will come forward and we won't have to close the project."

The FA has funded a Loughborough University study which compared the impact of old leather balls compared to more modern balls, plus separate research at Nottingham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The FA said in a statement: "We are collaborating closely with our independently-chaired Research Taskforce to expand our own research studies - most notably, using the findings of the FIELD study to understand what causes the observed increased risk of death from neurodegenerative disorders in the analysed group of former professional footballers, which is currently unknown."

The governing body pointed out it had "made changes to the way the game is played in England" in the wake of the FIELD study's findings.

It added: "Collaboration across football's governing bodies is key in order to better understand this important issue collectively, and we firmly believe that all areas of football should come together for this meaningful cause."

The PFA said the organisation was working with The Drake Foundation on a study, using its "member database to recruit former players to help examine the link between heading the ball and long-term cognitive function".

A spokesperson said: "The HEADING Study started in 2019 and we are continuing to send out communications throughout this year. The research targets the same demographic as the University of East Anglia, so we need to complete the current study before we can consider future proposals which require access to the same cohort within the database."

The PFA has also set up a dementia working group, and it has been reported England Women captain Steph Houghton is one of those it has approached.

It has also called for a reduction in heading in training sessions at all levels of the game - something Dr Grey supports.

PA

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