The brain of footballing legend Jeff Astle has been examined in a new BBC documentary fronted by former England captain Alan Shearer to investigate the links between heading a ball and dementia.
Part of the brain of the former England and WBA striker, whose death was linked to repeatedly heading the ball during his playing career, featured in the documentary Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me on Sunday night as his Measham family continue their campaign to highlight the dangers for footballers from heading balls.
Shearer spoke to families of footballers affected by dementia and underwent various studies, while also looking at the brains of people who have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from all walks of life.
Jeff, who was a five-capped England international, died 15 years ago from early on-set dementia (CTE) caused by heading the ball during his playing days.
During the documentary, Shearer looked at parts of the brain of Jeff, who died aged 59 after setting up a cleaning business in South Derbyshire upon his retirement, to witness the damage through a microscope. Jeff’s daughter, Dawn, has always been convinced of the connection with heading and dementia and headed up The Jeff Astle Foundation.
Dawn said the foundation had been contacted by the families of more than 300 former players, including an increasing number ready to contribute to the creation of a 'bank' of donated brains to help investigate.
She told Shearer she believes football authorities were dodging responsibility for player welfare, and said: "The PFA (Professional Footballers' Association) only exists for player welfare - they should be screaming from the rooftops for these players. This is killing our players and this should be their priority."
Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the players' union, admitted he did not know how many former players were facing the onset of dementia but wanted to improve support systems for sufferers.
He said: "I think it is the PFA's job to look and provide support. We have said money is going to be put towards research and also respite care.
"Football has a duty to see if there is a causal link, because if there is, it could significantly increase the problems in later life then we need to look at the rules of the game and address it."
During the filming, Shearer took part in some tests – cognitive as well as physiological – to measure the impact of his headers. He clocked up 45 goals from headed goals during his career.
He expressed concerns about the effects heading a ball during his career may have on his long-term health and took part in the documentary to investigate possible links between heading the ball and dementia.
An MRI scan, plus a spectroscopy, suggest that his brain was fine. Tests at Stirling University show he is affected by the headers – there is a disruption in brain chemistry after heading – but not whether doing this might have long-term consequences.
The former England captain believes more money should be invested into researching links between heading a football and dementia.
Speaking on the documentary he said: "Never ever did I think that heading a football could be dangerous for me.
"There are 850,000 people in our country that are suffering from dementia and there are a lot of footballers who are in those numbers. But we don’t know how many and that can’t be right.
"We started the research in 2002, its now 2017 and it seems like we are no further forward because the same questions are still being asked.
"There’s enough money nowadays in football, just not enough of it has been given to research. It’s about time we had more definitive answers."
Head of performance medicine at the FA, Dr Charlotte Cowie, has said that player welfare is paramount while it is increasingly important that the football authorities investigate further potential risks associated with heading the ball..
The FA said it is close to appointing an independent research group to investigate degenerative neuro-cognitive disease in ex professional footballers.
The show is available on the BBC iPlayer.