Concerned about the connection between concussion in football and long-term cognitive impairment, the Drake Foundation announced its sponsorship of the HEADING Study on 17 June 2018. HEADING stands for Health and Ageing Data IN the Game of Football, and the study recruited more than 300 former UK football players over the age of 50.

What Does the HEADING Study Involve?

Researchers for the study work closely with retired footballers to learn more about their playing history, work history, and unique lifestyle factors. They also conduct extensive testing with each player to determine if they ever experienced a concussion in football and how the brain injury has impacted their lives over the years.

The purpose of the testing is to determine each former player’s current level of physical and cognitive functioning. Players can choose to provide a blood sample to give researchers the opportunity to look for biomarkers related to brain health. Assessments take place in person.

Studying the Relationship Between Neurodegenerative Disease and Concussion in Football

The Drake Foundation published an earlier study in 2017 that focused on four former football players who had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated head trauma during their playing years. The players chosen for the study engaged in heading the ball more frequently than their teammates. Since the study only focused on four people, the organisation decided to create a new study for a larger perspective.

The programme manager for the research organisation expressed excitement about working with an established team of brain researchers when announcing the study nearly four years ago. Although players and coaches have had concerns about the impact of sports-related concussions for years, little information was available prior to the 2017 CTE study.

Due to the lack of available information, football leagues in the UK were not taking the necessary precautions to protect players and their cognitive abilities. Thanks to the results of the HEADING Study, leagues have changed rules about heading the ball and upgraded concussion protocols.

Why Concussion in Football is Unique Among Head Injuries

Professor Neil Pearce from the London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine has worked as the lead researcher for the HEADING Study since its inception. When interviewed after the announcement of the study, Pearce stated that different sports carry unique risks of head impact and the long-term affects that come with it.

Pearce used boxing as an example. Most people know that the sport increases the risk of long-term neurological deficits due to the participants taking repeated blows to the head. Prior to 2017, few people understood the relationship between concussion in football and the long-term impact of repeated ball heading. He expressed enthusiasm about providing the Football Association and Professional Footballers Association (PFA) with data they can use to justify changes that prioritise player safety.

Although the Football Association and PFA benefit from the HEADING Study, neither organisation is directly involved with it. Gordon Taylor, who serves as CEO of the PFA, indicated that the impact of head injuries and neurodegenerative disease has been a concern of the organisation for more than 20 years. However, it lacked the data necessary to implement changes until the 2017 and 2018 studies came along. The HEADING Study has been particularly instrumental in reducing brain injuries that cause long-term cognitive dysfunction.