As we see an increase in retired players’ dementia diagnoses, James Drake delves into the correlation between heading the ball and neurological decline.
Over recent weeks, the media has been rich with discussion over the potential correlation between repeated head impacts and dementia, especially following the passing of celebrated footballers, including Chris Chilton, Jack Charlton, and Nobby Stiles. Various research groups are examining the link between concussions, sub-concussive head impacts, and neurological decline, piecing together reasoning behind the high rate of dementia in former professional footballers who repeatedly headed the ball. This is both an interesting and a devastating connection – one that philanthropist James Drake dedicates much time, effort, and funding to explore. James Drake is the founder of The Drake Foundation, which he launched six years ago to fund collaborative research that examines the connection between sports concussions and long-term health trends.
As recent research has demonstrated, footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die from dementia than non-sports players, so we must enrich our understanding of the risks associated with heading the ball to protect the health of both current and future players. Here, James Drake comments on recent footballer dementia cases and explains why we must step up preventative measures for sports professionals.
News platforms have splashed the football icon Chris Chilton across headlines because of his family’s lack of funding for his advanced-stage dementia. The forward is best known for scoring a record 222 goals for Hull City during the sixties. Following a hugely successful career, Chilton was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia in 2012. Now, age 77, Chilton’s dementia has reached a severe stage, and he needs full-time care. Though the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has funded four weeks of care-home support for Chilton, until recently his family has been unable to finance his ongoing care.
Fortunately, Chilton has received £30,000 from a GoFundMe page, which fans, friends, and former Hull players have supported. Contributors include Sir Tom Courtenay, Steve McClaren, Nick Barmby, and Dean Windass. On top of this, Hull City Football Club has launched The 222 Collection, a limited-edition merchandise line, to help fund Chilton’s care. But controversy arises from the fact that the family must rely on crowdfunding to support Chilton, especially as many lesser-known sports professionals in similar situations are unlikely to raise such high sums. Chilton’s son Gary argues that football authorities and unions should be more active when supporting former players whose illnesses may well stem from their profession.
“Dad was a big, old-school No 9; heading was his forte and the balls they played with were just absolutely brutal,” Gary Chilton told The Guardian. “It’s not just that England team from ‘66; quite a few of the Hull City side my dad played in have it too. Dad’s in the pot of players from that era who have this illness and that pot is getting bigger all the time. It’s rampant and it’s absolutely devastating for families. It’s torn ours apart. It’s such a cruel, cruel disease, just absolutely evil.”
Gary explains that his father played in a similar style to Jeff Astle, who suffered from dementia, too. Similarly, Chilton’s teammate Alan Jarvis also died of dementia.
Sir Bobby Charlton
Sir Bobby Charlton is another example of an acclaimed footballer who has now been diagnosed with dementia at age 83. As one of England and Manchester United’s record goal-scorers, Charlton has won 106 England caps, three league titles, an FA Cup, and a European Cup. He is now on the board of directors at Old Trafford. The news is particularly devastating for the Charlton family given that Charlton’s older brother and former professional footballer Jack died from dementia and lymphoma in July.
Meanwhile, three other members of England’s 1966 World Cup team have also lost their lives to neurological conditions: Martin Peters, Ray Wilson, and Nobby Stiles. As the matter becomes even more pressing, Charlton is encouraging media attention to raise awareness about his diagnosis and highlight the potential link between heading the ball and neurodegenerative decline.
“It’s heartbreaking to see that some of our greatest ever players – our 1966 heroes – are suffering with this awful disease, which has now been correlated with a history of professional football. It’s even worse that they’re having to campaign to football authorities in order to see any acknowledgement, let alone action,” says James Drake.
At the end of October, Charlton’s teammate Nobby Stiles – the lynchpin of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph – sadly passed away after battling dementia and prostate cancer. Since his passing, his relatives have worked with Charlton’s family, among others, to launch a campaign that collates research into the connection between repeatedly heading the ball and dementia. The group is currently planning its first conference and plans to bring together scientists, caregivers, athletes, and academics in a bid to develop a precautionary, player-centred approach to avoiding sports-related concussions.
“We must protect the welfare of players. There are too many vested interests in the game,” Stiles’ son Rob and granddaughter Caitlin said in a joint statement. “We need independent research in order to protect the players of the future. We must promote education.”
Dr Judith Gates, wife of Middlesbrough’s Bill Gates, is leading the campaign. Her husband has been diagnosed with dementia and also has a tentative diagnosis of the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), for which repeated head impacts are the only widely accepted cause. As the number of footballer dementia cases continues to rise, the sports industry is under increasing pressure to take action, not least thanks to findings that The Drake Foundation has already brought to the table.
“In 2017, The Drake Foundation funded a study that was the first to diagnose CTE in the brains of former professional footballers. This was a landmark study, and just one of the studies that the Foundation is funding to help us fully understand the link between football and dementia, and how we can then reduce the risk of our players developing the disease,” adds James Drake.
More footballer Dementia cases
Though Chilton, Charlton, and Stiles are currently three of the biggest names in the media when it comes to the link between football and dementia, numerous other former footballers have also been affected. For starters, Jeff Astle, Peter Bonetti, Tommy Carroll, Stevie Chalmers, Jimmy Conway, Duncan Forbes, Alan Jarvis, Ray Wilson, Frank Kopel, Billy McNeill, Mike Tindall, John Talbut, Martin Peters, and Barry Pierce have all lost their lives to neurodegenerative diseases.
Furthermore, the England defender Dave Watson has now been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, described by his wife as ‘most likely’ brought on by repeated heading of the ball. Meanwhile, the Norwich City midfielder Mike Sutton also has dementia, and his son Chris, the former Norwich, Chelsea, and Celtic striker is considering pursuing legal action against football organisations as a result.
In short, there is a huge need for change in the sports industry. Keen to overcome the lack of research into the link between heading the ball and dementia, James Drake founded The Drake Foundation to promote knowledge sharing and take vital steps towards improving medical provision for sports players. These are just a couple of the studies that The Drake Foundation is funding to accelerate research in this under-covered area.
The HEADING study
Amongst the multitude of studies that The Drake Foundation funds, The HEADING (Health and AgEing Data IN the Game of football) Study is uncovering the connections between heading the ball and later cognitive decline in retired professional footballers. The study is still in progress – investigators from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, Institute of Occupational Medicine, RFU, and University College London are collaborating to shine a light on this murky area.
These investigators are examining the concussion and heading history of footballers who are now over the age of 50. Each former footballer is undergoing tests that examine their grip strength, reasoning, and memory, as well as neurological clinical examinations, blood samples, and questionnaires around social circumstances and quality of life.
“HEADING is a comprehensive study that examines not only the link between a career in professional football and neurodegenerative disease, but also – for the first time – will quantify players’ heading exposure and determine the association of heading and cognitive decline. Previous studies have only shown a link between playing football and cognitive decline, so we are very interested to see how much heading of the ball plays into this,” says James Drake.
The Drake football study
The Drake Foundation has also founded and seed-funded The Drake Football Study, the most comprehensive long-term study into professional footballers’ mental and physical health to date. Other contributing partners include FIFPRO, the Netherlands; the Mehiläinen NEO Hospital, Finland; and the University Medical Centers, the Netherlands.
For this ongoing study, researchers are collating data on current and former players’ mental, neurocognitive, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular health, spanning from their pre-retirement years to their post-retirement years – the study is expected to last for a minimum of 10 years. As the first longitudinal study of its kind, The Drake Football Study is set to uncover new insights into players’ health, which will impact the preventative and curative measures that health organisations implement for future generations of sports professionals.
“We are delighted to be working with footballers’ unions and organisations across Europe for The Drake Football Study, and expect that it will provide unprecedented insights into the effect of a career in professional football on long-term health, as well as the effects of retirement on a player’s physical and mental health,” says James Drake.
About The Drake Foundation
The Drake Foundation funds scientific research to improve players’ health and welfare in the sports industry. By bringing together acclaimed experts, the Foundation enables professionals to pave the way for accurate diagnoses and management of concussions. Since its launch in 2014, The Drake Foundation has already dedicated over £2 million to research and resources that examine sports-related head injuries and the long-lasting impacts that these can have.
Learn more about The Drake Foundation at www.drakefoundation.org.