Repeated blows to the head during a footballer’s professional career may be linked to long-term brain damage, according to tentative evidence from UK scientists.
The research, the first of its kind, follows anecdotal reports that players who head heavy balls may be more prone to developing dementia later in life.
The Football Association says it will look at this area more closely.
But experts said recreational players were unlikely to incur problems.
The small study is published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica.
Researchers from University College London and Cardiff University examined the brains of five people who had been professional footballers and one who had been a committed amateur throughout his life.
They had played football for an average of 26 years and all six went on to develop dementia in their 60s.
While performing post mortem examinations, scientists found signs of brain injury – called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in four cases.
CTE has been linked to memory loss, depression and dementia and has been seen in other contact sports.
Prof Huw Morris, of University College London, told the BBC: “When we examined their brains at autopsy we saw the sorts of changes that are seen in ex-boxers, the changes that are often associated with repeated brain injury which are known as CTE.
“So really for the first time in a series of players we have shown that there is evidence that head injury has occurred earlier in their life which presumably has some impact on them developing dementia.”
The report’s authors make it clear they were not analysing the risks of heading by children.