Today’s footballers could be at greater risk of brain disease as they head the ball more than prior generations, a study shows.
It had previously been thought modern-day players were less at risk because balls have changed and it was believed there were fewer headers now.
But new figures reveal matches now average 20 more headers than those in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
World Cup matches since 1990 have averaged 90-plus headers per game, peaking at 105 per match in 2002, said Dr Willie Stewart of the Glasgow Brain Injury Group.
There were 93 headers per match in 2006, 92 in 2014, 88 in 2014 and 91 in 2018. That was up from an average of under 70 before 1990, with a low of 59 per match in 1970.
Dr Stewart, who also led the landmark study into the number of footballers dying from dementia, said: “At the highest level of global competition, headers are increasing.
“There’s no evidence from these data that modern-day players at the highest international level might be at lower risk of neurodegenerative disease.”
Heading balls is feared to be a reason for footballers being up to five times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative illnesses.
The campaign to protect footballers from brain damage has gathered pace since the Mirror revealed in 2016 four of England’s 1966 World Cup winners had been diagnosed with dementia.
All four – Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson – have since died, and teammate Bobby Charlton is now living with the disease.
A study of players in the English top division in 1966 shows 40% of those who have died had dementia.
Last month a Leeds University study showed modern footballs travel faster and hit players with more force, which scientists fear causes more damage than the old leather balls used to.
Dawn Astle, whose ex-England star dad Jeff Astle died from dementia aged 59 in 2002, wants dementia recognised as an industrial disease for professional footballers.
She said: “If today’s footballers are under the impression this will only affect those who played the game 50 years ago, they are wrong.
“How much longer do we have to wait for action to protect modern players and support those already living with dementia?”