In football terms, there’s no doubt Alan Shearer was ‘great in the air’.
A decade after his retirement, the England legend still has the second-highest headed goals total in the Premier League with 46 (Peter Crouch has 51).
BBC Alan undergoes tests to assess the effect heading a ball could have on the brain
But what he didn’t realise is that simply by heading the ball, he could have been causing himself brain damage – a number of former players are said to be suffering from dementia caused by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease seemingly brought about by frequent heading over so many years.
“A big part of my game was using my head and scoring goals with it,” says Alan, 47, who retired from football in 2006 after almost 20 years playing professionally.
“I went into football knowing that by the age of 35 or 40 I’d have dodgy knees and a dodgy back.
"But you don’t expect problems with your brain. I never thought there could be any consequence to heading the ball. At all. Never dreamt of it.
“I first really thought about it when I was watching the film Concussion, which is about what players in American football have gone through thanks to head injuries.
"I thought about my career and the amount of times I’d headed the ball – my first coach had me in the gym, heading balls 100 times a day – and I wanted to look into it more.”
BBC Alan hopes this programme will spark more research into the connection between heading a football and dementia
For Dementia, Football And Me, scientists at Stirling University in Scotland conducted a number of tests on Alan.
He had his reflexes and brain function measured, then headed 20 balls and was tested again. He also underwent an MRI scan to see if there was lasting damage to his brain – however, he won’t reveal the results before the programme airs.
“I was very concerned,” says the Sun sports columnist.
“I haven’t got a great memory – maybe that’s because I don’t concentrate, I don’t know. But you can see how nervous I was before the scan, that was real. They said to me: ‘We appreciate you putting yourself forward for this, but if we find something we have to tell you.’”
In the documentary, Alan meets the family of former West Bromwich Albion player Jeff Astle, who suffered from dementia before his death in 2002 at the age of 59.
BBC He recalls heading balls 100 times a day at some points throughout his career
The coroner declared it was caused by heading footballs and termed it an ‘industrial disease’.
Alan also has a moving conversation with ex-footballer and dementia sufferer Chris Tees, whose wife squarely blames the sport for his condition.
“It was difficult speaking to people who are dealing with it,” says Alan.
“The Teeses are a really nice couple, but you can see how hard it is for them. Chris knows what he’s talking about, speaks to me for five or ten seconds and then he’s instantly got no idea what’s happening.”
Football's secret shame
In February, scientists at University College London and Cardiff University revealed the results of post-mortems on five former professional footballers and one amateur who suffered from dementia. All showed signs of brain injury and CTE was found in four cases. CTE has been linked to memory loss, depression and dementia, and has been seen in other contact sports.
And a study at Stirling University, where Alan is tested, showed that memory performance is temporarily reduced by between 41 and 67 per cent in the 24 hours after heading a ball just 20 times.
Football legend Alan Shearer proves he's still got the skills with immense volley goal on family holiday
NEW! Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football And Me Sunday, 10.30pm, BBC1
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RUMBLE IN JUNGLE
New year, new fear
AMIR'S RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
while Ant's away
heading for dementia?
MY SECRET RON FLING
look at her chlo!