PARENTS have been advised to remove children from youth football teams that fail to comply with head injury guidelines after a groundbreaking study found former professional players were five times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Research led by Glasgow University also found there was a four-fold increase in Scottish players who were born between 1900 and 1976 developing motor neurone disease, and the risk of Parkinson’s was doubled.

Overall, former players over the age of 70 were three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases, although mortality rates under that age were lower due to a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers. Dementia has affected a number of ex-players, including Celtic legend Billy McNeill, Dundee United’s Frank Kopel, ex-Celtic hero Chris Sutton’s father Mike and former Scotland manager Ally MacLeod.

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: Alzheimer's risk for footballers.Camley's Cartoon: Alzheimer's risk for footballers.

Former Rangers player Fernando Ricksen also died last month, aged 43, from motor neurone disease.

Dr Willie Stewart, the consultant neuropathologist who led the study, said concerns raised by families about a possible link between dementia and football had been brushed aside and said there was a strong motivation to provide loved ones with answers.

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He suggested parents should consider removing their children from sports including football clubs that were not following safety protocols on the management of head injuries, but said he “would not stop kids participating in sport” on the basis of the study’s findings.

Scotland is the first country to produce concussion guidelines in a joint move by the national football and rugby associations, sportscotland and the Government.

HeraldScotland:

Dr Stewart suggested clubs could mitigate the risks by reducing the frequency of heading the ball during training days and ensuring that players were removed from the pitch if they sustained head injuries. The research found former goalkeepers were half as likely to require prescription medication for dementia than outfield players.

Alzheimer Scotland praised the research team for providing “conclusive evidence” of a link between professional football and a higher incidence of dementia. The Scottish FA said it would be consulting with Uefa and Fifa to establish a global response in light of the “historic study”, which is the first to establish a link between brain diseases and professional football.

Researchers compared the cause of death of 7,676 former Scottish, male professional footballers against 23,000 matched individuals from the general population.

Players were less likely to die of common diseases such as heart disease and some cancers, including lung cancer, and lived three-and-a quarter years longer, on average.

Dr Stewart said: “We were conscious of families with very personal stories including Amanda Kopel and Frankie.

"We needed to get an answer as to whether football was associated with an increased risk of dementia. “What is surprising – and I hope this changes from today – is the number of families who were told that the football was irrelevant and had nothing to do with why he had dementia.

"We are now able to tell the families that, yes, the football did play some part. It doesn’t mean that they would want to turn back the clock and not have the football there but it’s just having that understanding. “We can’t say what the absolute risk is but we will be looking at this in the future.

"We need to look at better identification of head injuries on the park, better management of head injuries off the park and doing what they can to reduce the risk of head injuries and head impacts. Let’s just say now, if in doubt sit them out.

“If parents are putting their kids into sport, when they hand their kid over on a Saturday morning they should ask the the coach what is your head injury management policy? But I wouldn’t stop kids participating in sport on the basis of what we have found today.”

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He said protective helmets worn in sports such as American football and rugby provided “no protection” from brain injury and there is nothing to suggest the risk was greater in heavier old leather football. He said further studies were necessary to look at any potential risks from the “community game.”

Henry Simmons, Alzheimer Scotland’s chief, said: “This was an exceptionally robust study and given the scale of the findings there must now be no time lost in moving forward further research to properly define what the main risk factors are and indeed determining what must be done to minimise them.”

SFA chief Ian Maxwell said: “The game has changed immeasurably during the timeline examined by the researchers and we need to understand what exactly causes the increased rates of dementia.