Ex-footballers urged to sign up for early dementia tests

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Norwich City striker Iwan RobertsImage source, Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Image caption,
Iwan Roberts was a striker at Norwich City for seven years

A former Wales and Norwich City footballer has agreed to brain tests for the rest of his life as part of a study into early signs of dementia.

Iwan Roberts, 51, who played more than 800 games, is urging other male and female ex-players to sign up.

Recent research found they had a higher risk of dying from dementia than the average person - linked to repeated heading of the ball.

The University of East Anglia study will use online tests to spot changes.

"I scored with my head a lot," said the striker, who chalked up 239 goals during his 20-year career, which ended in 2005.

"I want to see if there is anything I should be concerned about in the foreseeable future."

Painful headers

Roberts has already taken a series of simple memory, attention and spatial-awareness tests and he will repeat them every six months.

Researchers will then compare his results with those of an active person of similar age.

"I'm a big believer in prevention is better than cure," Roberts said.

"The sooner I know the signs are there, the better."

The balls were lighter now, Roberts said, but there were still risks to players, particularly children, who he thinks should be banned from heading the ball until a certain age.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Little is known about when ex-players start to show signs of dementia, and even less about the effects in women

"When I started playing, the balls were hard to head, it was painful sometimes - but I didn't think of it at the time," he said.

"The pain was worth it though."

Now, Iwan said, he was going to ask other former Norwich City players to get involved in the Scores study, which will be published anonymously.

"The research they are doing here will help everybody," he added.

UEA wants to raise £1m to fund the research and plans to crowdfund at least 10% of it.

Lead researcher Dr Michael Grey, from the school of health sciences, said: "We now know that there is much higher risk of dementia in former professional footballers and we think this is related to repetitive heading of the ball."

"So there will be many footballers out there who are understandably very worried about their futures."

Image source, Getty Images

The Drake Foundation, which funds research into concussion and head injuries in sport, said: "We're very pleased to see the issue of the long-term effects of head impacts in sport gaining more momentum."

It added the study would "provide new insights that will contribute to a richer understanding of the link between football and neurodegenerative disease", and particularly in women.

The FA said it welcomed all research in this area and looked forward to the findings of the study.

"We have taken steps... to review possible changes to heading coaching and training at all levels of the game, as well as identifying new areas of research," it said.

The FA recently made three recommendations:

  • Players with suspected concussion should be taken off - "If in doubt, sit them out"
  • Children practise heading only "in proportion" to the 1.5 headers per game in youth football
  • Footballers are told of the other known risk factors for dementia, such as not smoking, drinking moderately and keeping a healthy weight

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