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Sir Bobby Charlton, one of England’s greatest ever footballers, has been diagnosed with dementia. Can playing football lead to several diseases?

Sir Bobby Charlton

A 1966 World Cup winner and one of the greatest ever footballers of England, Sir Bobby Charlton, has been diagnosed with dementia. The news was revealed by Lady Norma Charlton, his wife, to The Telegraph following the recent death of his former Manchester United teammate Nobby Stiles and his older brother Jack Charlton in July, both of whom were diagnosed with dementia in later life.

Sir Bobby survived the tragic and horrible Munich air crash of 1958, he spent almost entire career at Manchester United and played every minute of England’s 1966 World Cup campaign, winning the Ballon d’Or that same year. In 758 games for United he scored 249 goals and 49 goals in 106 games for the team of England. He is 83 years old now.

The club said in it’s statement

Everyone at Manchester United is saddened that this terrible disease has afflicted Sir Bobby Charlton and we continue to offer our love and support to Sir Bobby and his family.”

And so one important question appears: 

Is the development of several diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s linked with playing football and heading the ball?

Tommy Charlton spoked it out about his older brother Sir Bobby

“It is hard not to think it was linked to heading the ball. It was just the later years when he was worst affected. I had four uncles who all played football who were hit by dementia, and I am sure that had something to do with it. But he would not have had it any other way. If you had told Jack not to head the ball, he would have still done it.”

Stand in honor of Sir Bobby Charlton unveiled at Old Trafford:

There are opinions that the old-type balls that were made of strong rubber while the outer layer was formed of strong leather, with stitches cut out were just not comfortable to play. Especially in the rain when the ball becomes heavier. The new type was introduced at the 1970 World Cup onwards. 

Incidentally, Charlton is the fifth player from England’s 1966 World Cup-winning campaign, the last major tournament with the old-style balls, to be diagnosed with dementia. 

The four others are Ray Wilson (died in 2018), Martin Peters (died last year), Nobby Stiles and Charlton’s brother Jack, both of whom died this year. The team’s manager, Alf Ramsey, also had dementia.

Recently a landmark study by University of Glasgow was quoted by The Guardian. It is said that “former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from dementia… five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s.” This, the researchers concluded, was because of the damage to the brain due to repeated heading of the football over a period of time. But it was not conclusive. It is argued that physical contact during a match – like an elbow to players’ head – can also be a factor along with a combination of lifestyle and genetic factors.

For this moment there are no restrictions from FIFA about heading the ball, only the form of recommendation for kids.