Recent tests have confirmed that West Bromich Albion Legend, Jeff Astle, died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused by heading footballs. CTE is a disease found in former boxers and American football stars.
The tests were carried out by world-leading neuropathologist, Dr Willie Stewart, who re-examined sections of the former England footballer’s brain after being granted permission by his family following medical advances.
Jeff died in 2002, after being misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Returning a verdict of death by industrial disease at Jeff’s inquest, South Staffordshire coroner Andrew Haigh said he died from a degenerative brain disease caused by the constant heading of the heavy, and often wet, leather footballs.
Now, according to Dr Stewart, Jeff did not die from Alzheimer’s disease. He actually had CTE, a disease which causes mood swings, depression and eventually death. Consequently, it can often be confused with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
CTE is a progressive degenerative disease, which can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem, in individuals with a history of multiple contusions and other forms of head injury. It is most commonly found in professional athletes who participate in American football, rugby, ice hockey, wrestling and other contact sports where players suffer repetitive blows to the head.
In the past five years CTE has been found in the brains of more than 200 former American footballers, leading to a $765million (£456million) settlement between the National Football League and the brain-damaged players.
Dr Stewart informed Jeff’s widow, Laraine, that had he not known that Jeff was only 59 when he died he would have thought his brain was that of someone at least 89 years old.
This is the first case of CTE found in an English professional footballer. However, Jeff’s case is unlikely to be unique. There are potentially many other footballers who have been misdiagnosed with dementia when in fact they are suffering with CTE.
Jeff’s family have now renewed their calls for the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to investigate the effects of heading the ball on the brain. The FA and the PFA had promised a 10-year joint study into the link between heading and the early onset of dementia. This promise was made 12 years ago, but no such study has yet been carried out.
President Barack Obama has called for research into the link between contact sports and dementia. A conference concerning concussion in sport was held at the White House last week, where $55million was pledged to fund future research. Meanwhile, in the UK, a cross-party group led by former Labour Minister Chris Bryant MP will call next week for a Parliamentary Inquiry into concussions in sport.