A new study of top-flight footballers playing in England in the 1965-66 season has found neurodegenerative diseases were a factor in 42% of the deaths among that group so far.
This shocking new statistic confirms professional footballers are dying of dementia at a rate of between three and four times the general population.
The 1965-66 season culminated with the finest summer for English international football to date as Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore et al won the World Cup for the first and only time.
A new study reveals neurodegenerative diseases were a factor in 42% of the deaths of top flight footballers playing in England during the 1965-66 season
But the new research, undertaken by the Mail on Sunday, will only add momentum to the campaign for further investigation into the dangers of playing the game, and heading in particular.
The conclusions of the MoS’s work have been described as ‘startling’ and ‘important’ by Dr Willie Stewart, the world’s foremost expert on the link between football and brain injury-related deaths.
Dr Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist based in Glasgow, led the biggest study to date on the subject, published a year ago, comparing the causes of death of 7,676 former Scottish male professional football players born between 1900 and 1976 against more than 23,000 individuals from the general population.
Nobby Stiles (right) suffered from dementia and was part of England’s 1966 group of heroes
The new MoS study focussed specifically on the pool of 475 first-team players at the 22 clubs in England’s top division in 1965-66. (See panel for details and methodology). Of that group, 185 have died to date, and at least 79 of those, or 42%, have died with neurodegenerative illnesses or conditions associated with traumatic brain injury.
The vast majority of the 79 died from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, or Parkinson’s disease or related disorders, or motor neurone disease.
When a formal cause of a death was a different condition, for example cancer or pulmonary embolism, but a player had endured years of dementia, the MoS included those players as having died with (if not of) dementia.
“That [42 per cent] is a startling number and should be an eye-opener for the problem football has,’ Dr Stewart told the Mail on Sunday.
Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton has also been discovered to have dementia
‘The detail of your study is important. Just because somebody died from a pulmonary embolism didn’t mean they [italics] didn’t [off] have dementia.
‘One of the arguments used by critics of [our] work [published a year ago] – and these critics invariably come from within football – is that we were looking specifically at Scottish footballers. That criticism implies something genetically remarkable about Scots.
‘Your findings are important because the data set is from England, with primarily English players. And let’s not forget that it was through the diagnosis of an English footballer, Jeff Astle, that we proved a link between football and irreparable brain damage.’
Astle, an England striker who played almost 300 league games for West Brom between 1964 and 1974, died aged 59 in 2002. He became a landmark case in the fight for the truth about dementia in football after his brain was re-examined in 2014 by Dr Stewart, who found Astle had in fact died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Dr Stewart was introduced to Astle’s family by journalist Sam Peters of the Mail on Sunday.
Jeff Astle (above) died in 2002 and is a landmark case in the fight for truth about dementia
This newspaper began campaigning in 2013 for more research into the effects of concussion in rugby, and then into dementia in football. Seven years on, awareness is widespread and campaigning ever more urgent, not least by the MoS and our sister title.
Key findings from the new MoS study show 42% of deaths link to neurodegenerative illness and traumatic brain injury, with at least 25 of the 290 players still alive having dementia. The latter figure is certainly higher in reality. Numerous clubs, former players’ associations and individuals shared with us that they know of cases not in the public domain but wanted to keep those details private.
Of the 79 players known to have died with neurodegenerative conditions, the average age of death was 74, and the median age 75. This too is shocking. The chances of a British man dying of such a cause (across all age groups) is around 13%, ranging from around 6% among 70-year-olds to around 10% of 75-year-olds to around 25% by the age of 90.
Of England’s 22-man squad for the 1966 World Cup, 13 have died and six of those (or 46%) with Alzheimer’s or dementia. ‘That’s high,’ says Dr Stewart. ‘But also consistent with what we have shown so far – that no matter how you crunch the numbers, the chances of a professional footballer dying with a neurodegenerative disease is 3.5 to 4.5 more likely than the general population.
‘In a squad of 22 you might expect 2 or 3. We’re at six already [from England’s 1966 squad] and will end up in double figures.’
Six members of England’s World Cup-winning squad, including Jack Charlton, have died with Alzheimer’s or dementia
The six 1966 players dying from Alzheimer’s or other dementias are goalkeeper Peter Bonetti, defenders Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Ray Wilson and Gerry Byrne, and midfielder Martin Peters. A seventh player, Sir Bobby, was recently diagnosed with dementia.
Other prominent dementia or CTE deaths include Liverpool’s Tommy Smith, Manchester United’s Bill Foulkes and Tottenham’s Dave Mackay.
‘The frustration is this problem has been staring the sport in the face for decades,’ Stewart says. ‘It’s taken until 2019 and 2020 to acknowledge. And still the game isn’t moving forward on the issue really.
‘Rugby over the past decade has moved on considerably and they don’t even have the [expanse of] data and evidence football has. Sam Peters and the Mail on Sunday [concussion campaign from 2013] was at the heart of that.
‘Simply put, football has to move into the 21st century on this.’