Can heading a football cause dementia?

Dawn Astle, daughter of West Bromich Albion's Jeff Astle, talks to George Hook about how years of heading footballs may have contributed to her father's early death

Yesterday it was announced that FIFA will join a number of the world’s sports organisations for the Fifth International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport in Berlin.

In recent years, football's world governing body has been seeking to address the problem of concussion, particularly following Christoph Kramer's high-profile head injury during the 2014 World Cup final.

But there is concern among some that the game is still fraught with other dangers.

Dawn Astle - daughter of West Bromwich Albion's Jimmy Astle - spoke to George Hook earlier about the horrific experience her father underwent years after his retirement from the game.

She explained how Astle's penchant for heading the ball was to become the cause of his early demise, expressing concern that a number of other footballers could end up suffering the same fate.

"Dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers when he was 55", she said. "He was actually very fit and didn't think there was anything wrong with him."

However, Dawn recalled how a trip to the doctor changed everything. The doctor did a short test, asking Astle to remember a simple name and address beforehand; despite passing the tests so well that his wife initially thought she had been imagining the symptoms, Astle couldn't remember the name and address - at which point he received his diagnosis.

"From that day, the disease took more hold of him", she said. "He'd try to eat things that weren't edible, or he would try to get out of a moving car. I suppose, in a way, he became socially unacceptable."

For Dawn, it was a slow and sad decline towards an early death: “Over the last year, the disease really took hold. He lost the ability to recognise me and my children, and my sisters. We lost a little part of him every day, and endured the pain and helplessness of seeing a hero taken away.”

She told the harrowing story about how her father died at the age of 59, choking to death on her birthday. “He came to the house for tea and he looked 159", she said. At one point Astle started to cough. "His legs were giving way and we were trying to hold him up; you could see he was trying to get sick, but he couldn’t do it. We were screaming at him to spit it out, but he couldn’t [because] his brain was so damaged.”

At the inquest 10 months later, a leading pathologist said that there was considerable evidence of trauma to the brain, similar to a boxer. “He said that the main candidate for the trauma was heading the heavy balls", Dawn said. "It was a repeated trauma that appeared to be the problem.”

Her Majesty’s coroner Andrew Hauge even argued that occupational exposure was responsible for Astle's death: the official verdict was industrial disease. "In layman’s terms, dad’s job had killed him.”

Astle was later found to have been suffering from CTE - the same disease suffered by boxers who suffer from trauma to the brain from repeated punches.

While appreciating the steps that FIFA have taken to protect players from concussion, Dawn doesn't think sporting authorities are doing enough to protect players from the dangers of heading the ball: “I think that sporting authorities are more interested in protecting the product; it should really be about protecting the players.”

Ultimately, she says that's why she and her family created the Jeff Astle Foundation, whose slogan is 'Supporting the past, and educating the future.' She hopes the work of the foundation will go a long way towards keeping footballers safe from the dangers of CTE in the future, and allow authorities to put structures in place to protect them.

"We want football to recognise what these players and their families are going through", she said. "[It's about] putting the proper support and financial support in place, and educating about the danger of head injuries in sport."

You can listen to the full interview from The Right Hook below: