By Paul Martin
World Cup hero Sir Geoff Hurst has claimed dementia is one of the biggest issues facing football - and urged the Football Association’s new chairman to make it their top priority.
Hurst’s 1966 team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton, widely considered to be England’s greatest player, made his diagnosis with dementia public this month to help others living with the disease.
Fellow World Cup winners Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson were also diagnosed prior to their deaths.
Studies have found those who played the game professionally are three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.
It is 18 years since an inquest into the death of Hurst’s former England team-mate Jeff Astle gave a verdict of ‘death by industrial disease’ with neuro-pathologists claiming his brain condition was exacerbated by heading footballs.
Hurst wants increased independent funding for further investigation into the link between football and dementia and has called on the game’s governing body to act.
“It is becoming a bigger issue every day and it has to be one of the key issues for the new FA chairman to address,” Hurst said.
“I see something almost every day about ex-players who are suffering.
“I was reading this week about the title-winning Burnley team from 1960 and how six of that team have died from dementia.
“We are hoping science will help dramatically, as with the ongoing pandemic, in finding out how this happens and developing our understanding.”
Lockdown restrictions have prevented Hurst seeing Sir Bobby Charlton since the latter’s diagnosis was made public, but he has sent a card to his World Cup winning team-mate and hopes the growing number of high-profile cases will prove a catalyst for change.
“The bigger the issue gets, the more difficult it is for people in the higher levels of sport to step away from dealing with it,” he said.
“Sir Bobby is the fifth member of our ’66 team to suffer from dementia – and other squad members have suffered too.
“There is a strong, inarguable link. Anything that can be done, and any money that can be spent, to increase the research around this will be hugely beneficial to current and former players.”
Hurst has backed research which shows how smart meter data could – in the future, and with consumer consent - help the NHS to improve care for people living with dementia, making it easier for them to live independently in their homes for longer.
Research from independent think tank 2020health suggests energy usage patterns from smart meter data could be used as a non-intrusive way to understand the daily habits of people with illnesses such as dementia, Parkinson’s and depression.
Irregularities in these patterns could alert relatives or healthcare workers that the person may need additional support, allowing family and friends to act as ‘first responders’ to possible low risk health concerns.
“I’m interested in new technological developments which can help sufferers, as well as their families and carers,” added Hurst.
“It is very welcome news that something as small as a smart meter could potentially help our healthcare services in the future.”
The 78-year-old went on to support calls to introduce concussion replacements, as seen in rugby, as well as bringing in rules to limit headers in training sessions and banning the practice altogether for young children.
“I go back to my time at West Ham, where we had a ball hanging from the ceiling in the gym and we would practice heading it constantly for up to half an hour,” he said.
“Then out on the field, with guys crossing the ball in, you could be heading it 20 or 30 times in a short space of time.
“Those issues – within training rather than the game itself – should be addressed as the amount of times you head the ball in practice has a huge impact.
“We’d have absolutely cut down the number of times we headed the ball had we known then what we know now.
“Stopping heading at grassroots level, when kids are nine or ten years old, would have no impact at all on their enjoyment of football and it will also improve their skills on the ground.
“It would be beneficial both for their long-term health and in terms of making them better players.”
Sir Geoff Hurst is encouraging people to speak to their energy suppliers about getting a smart meter installed.