The Glasgow Brain Injury Research Group (GBIRG) conducted FIELD studies of the pathology of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurs in those who have suffered a concussion in football, soccer, rugby, or other contact sport. The studies include those who have been exposed to repetitive mild TBIs as well as those who may have had just one moderate or severe TBI.
GBIRG brought together a team of professionals to study the brains of former Scottish League professional soccer players to see if TBI increases the risk of dementia and the “characteristics of the pathology of survival from TBI, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).” The brains of these former players were compared to brains of those from the general population and matched according to sex, year of birth, and socioeconomic status.
The team included researchers and experts in TBI, public health, and sports with the purpose of studying a “wide range of physical and mental health outcomes in former soccer players, including neurodegenerative disease.”
The team collected the health records of all included in the study including the death certificates, the number of hospital admissions for TBI, and prescription information. All data were assessed to determine if former players who had a concussion in soccer, or more than one concussion, were at greater risk for adverse mental health outcomes.
Summary of the Results
FIELD stands for Football’s InfluencE on Lifelong Health and Dementia risk. It is the first large study into “lifelong outcomes, including dementia, in former football players.”
The results of the FIELD study show that players of contact sports who suffer a concussion are at increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases. The risk increases in those with longer careers. Also, at higher risk are outfield players, specifically defenders.
There were a number of health benefits for those with a career in professional sports including a lower risk of ischemic heart disease, lower risk of drug and alcohol abuse, lower risk of mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and lower overall risk of mental health disorders.
What the Results Mean for the Future
When the initial results of the study were published, the Football Associations of Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland took precautionary measures to reduce the risk of concussion in football and soccer and restricted heading in youth soccer. Other measures need to be taken and adjustments made to the wider game of soccer. The GBIRG recommends:
- More restrictions on heading in soccer.
- Improved concussion education.
- Improved concussion protocols should be put in place.
- More research needs to be done to understand the underlying risk factors and how they may relate to other contact sport athletes.
- Programs need to be developed for those who have suffered repetitive head impact injuries during their career playing contact sports.
Program Dementia is a model program that was established about 10 years ago with the goal of evaluating biomarkers to learn more about the risk factors of dementia in those who have suffered a concussion in football, soccer, rugby, or other contact sport, or repetitive concussions in contact sports.
Ways Retired Athletes Can Optimise Brain Health
Athletes who have been exposed to the risk of developing dementia, CTE, or other neurodegenerative diseases due to TBI during their contact sports careers need to take measures to optimise their brain health. Steps they can take include:
- Reduce alcohol consumption.
- Do not smoke.
- Keep the brain active by learning new skills.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Exercise regularly.
GBIRG will continue its studies and encourages people, particularly those who have suffered a TBI, to register for brain donation.