Doctor Willie Stewart warns dementia research can't go to waste

‘Losing the momentum we had would have been unthinkable’: Dr Willie Stewart warns his crucial research into the link between dementia and football cannot go to waste

  • Doctor Willie Stewart was concerned his work would come to an end in March
  • He believed funding, which had come from the FA and PFA, was to be stopped
  • Stewart says he needs to carry on his research for at least another two years

Doctor Willie Stewart was frustrated when we first spoke on Monday. The man whose FIELD study has so far managed to slightly lift the giant boulder that is dementia in footballers — allowing him and his team to take a peek underneath — was concerned that all his work would come to an end in March.

He believed funding, which had come from the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association, was to be stopped when he needed to carry on for at least another two years.

Dr Stewart was bracing himself for a day when he would enter his office at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, switch off his laptop and turn the lights out in the lab.

Doctor Willie Stewart needs to carry on his dementia research on for at least another two years

Doctor Stewart compared 7,676 players born between 1900 and 1976 to 23,000 members of the public. His key findings were that footballers are:

– Three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than people of the same age in the general public

– Five times more likely to die due to Alzheimer’s

– Four times more likely to die of motor neurone disease

– Twice as likely to die due to Parkinson’s.

– Goalkeepers are not significantly less likely to die of these diseases than outfield players.

The study, which delivered the landmark finding that former professional footballers were 3.5 times more likely to die from neuro-degenerative disease than the general population, was set to come to a premature end. The boulder was to drop to the ground with arguably the most important work ever done in this area terminated.

Then something strange happened. The £250,000 Dr Stewart required for the next two years was part of Sportsmail’s seven-point campaign. At 1.53pm yesterday, this newspaper contacted the PFA to make them aware of the details of our campaign and to ask them for a response.

At 6.02pm, we were sent a statement from the PFA which claimed funding had been agreed. It was news to Dr Stewart. The players’ union then tweeted many of the points made in their lengthy statement. As if by magic (or email), the concerns that Dr Stewart had harboured for months were apparently lifted.

It should not come as a huge surprise. The money Dr Stewart needed represents an eighth of Gordon Taylor’s salary. Around £100,000 less than Taylor pays his finance director. It is money they can find in, say, a matter of hours.

Regardless, this is good news. It appeared to be a victory for the campaign before its first words were printed. A key victory. ‘Losing the momentum we had would have been unthinkable,’ said Dr Stewart, who was last night still waiting for the news to be relayed to him by the PFA. ‘It’s marvellous. It allows us to carry on. If we are allowed to keep this going, the future looks bright. This has been hanging over us for a year.’

At least five of England’s 1966 heroes, including Sir Bobby Charlton, have lived with dementia

The importance of another two years cannot be overstated. ‘There is a way of trying to unlock this,’ he explained. ‘I think (by the end of the two years) we should know the changing face of the disease — whether there is any sign that it is getting better in younger generations, getting worse or staying the same.’

Dr Stewart and Co are now ready to extend the study to those born in 1990 after examining those aged 40 and above. Modern footballers. To finally end the old leather ball argument if they have not done so already. But there is more.

‘We might find a way of looking at brain scans that may spot football-associated problems and may even be something that could be used in retired footballers to say there may be problems ahead,’ he said. Tell-tale signs could be treated.

‘Prevention is better than cure,’ explained Dr Stewart. ‘We need to focus attention on finding people who are at risk and stopping it happening or slowing it down. By the time people get dementia their brains are so badly damaged. 

‘We would hope to go to living footballers and say to them, “Here are things you can do to reduce your risk”. We can be aggressive on blood pressure management, on stopping smoking, changing diet, exercise and all the things we know which modify the risk.’

Dr Stewart is ready to extend the study to those born in 1990 after examining those above 40 

Understandably, Dr Stewart did not want all the good work to go to waste. ‘It took us three years to develop interrogation analysis methods,’ he said. ‘Living, breathing codes. That process is now up and running. We can do so much more — but this is not a project you can switch on and off. If we flicked the switch then the code dies. If we didn’t roll through it could take four to five years to get back to where we are.’

Dr Stewart is backing Sportsmail’s seven-point campaign. It is he who has guided on the science behind our call for regulation surrounding heading in training.

‘Data shows if you test brain function, memory and how quickly electrical signals pass from the brain, and then head the ball 20 times and test again, your memory has been affected, your speed of brain signal has been slowed,’ he said. ‘It seems to take 24 hours to recover. That’s the logic — 48 hours (of rest) to be safe.


ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: Sportsmail launches campaign to tackle football’s dementia scandal amid a growing number of former players affected by brain disease

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ‘He’s a shell, he can’t get up… he’s just lying in a nappy’: Chris Sutton opens up to Martin Samuel on his former footballer dad’s battle with dementia and how the game is turning a blind eye

JOSEPHINE SUTTON: The specialist said my husband Mike had severe brain damage caused by heading footballs… if he had any realisation of what dementia has reduced him to now, I know he would feel humiliated  

MARTIN SAMUEL: Headaches after just eight games? Thiago Silva’s revelation about ‘non-stop aerial duels’ should have set alarm bells ringing… is it too much to ask to explore this conversation to its logical end?

EXCLUSIVE: Football could soon be FORCED to introduce rules to tackle the risk of brain injury by the Government as MP admits he is ‘amazed’ that authorities have not faced a lawsuit over inaction  

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ‘It was fury that drove me at the start’: Tireless campaigner Dawn Astle, daughter of former West Brom forward Jeff, wants brain degeneration in footballers to be declared an industrial disease

RICHARD THOMPSON – SURREY CHAIRMAN: Dementia is Britain’s biggest killer and something must be done… the cost of care, support and helping people must be a priority  

‘Some people have done tests where they took blood samples from people who had headed the ball 30 times and detected brain proteins floating in the blood. These proteins should not be there. Maybe as the research goes forward they find if you head 20 balls on a Monday and 20 on a Wednesday, the 20 on Wednesday produce more of an effect because the brain not fully recovered.

‘You had (Chelsea’s) Thiago Silva recently saying he was leaving the pitch with headaches after coming to play in England — if that’s not an indicator there’s a problem, I don’t know what else you need.’

Dr Stewart also supports the other elements of our campaign, including the call for the PFA to bring in a team of dementia specialists across the country with a designated helpline.

‘Footballers, former athletes with dementia have unique challenges,’ he said. ‘The challenge is greater with these active men. This is a unique population. It needs people with particularly insight.’

Thiago Silva recently said he was leaving the pitch with headaches after coming to England

Dr Stewart believes those on the team could play a vital role. ‘They could say to relatives, “This is how you might want to deal with it”.’

He is also behind the respite elements. ‘There is something that exists called Football Memories,’ he explained. ‘They are events which are often based at stadiums. The players with dementia are with people who have a shared interest. Props such as pictures stimulate the memory, they become alive. Their families feel like they have them back. You can see them argue over who was best. It wouldn’t cost much to extend it.

‘There comes a time where a few hours away is needed to clear the head for families and recharge the batteries. Their behaviour can be very challenging and giving family a break from that is huge.’

Dr Stewart is not a man for insults. He made his points calmly and with reason. ‘This cannot stop here,’ he said, before the later development with the PFA. Thankfully, it appears as though now it will not. 

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