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Why is the Scottish FA planning to ban heading for under-12s?

The Scottish Football Association is said to be set to announce a ban for Under-12s from heading the ball during training because of the links between football and dementia.

A similar ban has been in place since 2015 in the United States but the SFA would be the first European country to implement the ruling.

Here, the PA news agency takes a closer look at the issue.

Why is such a ban being considered?

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A report by the University of Glasgow, published in October 2019, discovered former professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of a degenerative brain disease than the general population.

What is the background to the study?

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In November 2017, the Professional Footballers’ Association and Football Association commissioned a study titled ‘Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk’ – or FIELD for short – which was led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University. The report assessed the medical records of some 7,676 men who played professional football in Scotland and were born between 1900 and 1976, with their records matched against more than 23,000 individuals from the general population.

Who had been calling for more research?

Jeff Astle (right) died at the age of 59

Jeff Astle (right) died at the age of 59 (PA Archive/PA)

Former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle died in January 2002, aged 59, from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of dementia caused by brain injury. The coroner ruled that his death had been caused by the repeated trauma of heading the ball, describing it as an “industrial disease”.Since Astle’s death, the families of dozens of other ex-footballers – including several from England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad – have come forward to reveal their stories of dealing with dementia and related illnesses. Dawn Astle, Jeff’s daughter, has been campaigning since the death of her father. She is a strong critic of PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor and how the union has historically tackled the issue. Former Blackburn and Celtic forward Chris Sutton has also spoken out, with his father, Mike, battling dementia.

Is this because old footballs were heavier?

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The game may have moved on from leather balls weighed down by water and with a thick lace strap, but the debate over the long-term impact of heading continues. Former England captain Alan Shearer took part in a BBC documentary “Dementia, Football and Me” to examine if he could potentially be at risk. Meanwhile, former Norwich players Iwan Roberts and Jeremy Goss are part of the University of East Anglia’s ‘SCORES Project’, which aims to track the cognitive function of former professionals, both men and women, aged over 50, and compare them to age-matched physically-active individuals from the general population.

Should we all just stick to a passing game?

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Maybe – but taking such a blanket measure would change the whole dynamic of the sport. The FA says heading is actually significantly less common in children’s games, with analysis showing that on average there are only around 1.5 headers per match in youth football. Brain injury association Headway has called for further research to be undertaken around the suggested ages for when it would be “safe” to start heading the ball. The Alzheimer’s Society, meanwhile, feels studies must continue, as in general exercise is thought to reduce dementia risk – but the organisation also stresses more understanding is needed to make sure that everyone can enjoy playing sport safely.

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