The BrainHOPE study will be led by consultant neuropathologist Willie Stewart, whose previous research showed ex-professionals were 3.5 times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases than the general population.
The new project, jointly funded by the Football Association and world governing body FIFA, will use a range of tests to compare brain health in former footballers between the ages of 40 and 59 with the general population, and explore whether there are ways to reduce the risk.
“This is an incredibly important study, and we are grateful to the FA and FIFA for their support to allow it to proceed,” said Stewart, an honorary professor at the University of Glasgow.
“Our findings from the Field study show there is reason to worry about lifelong brain health in former footballers. BrainHOPE is designed to identify tests that might detect problems early on and, more importantly, possible ways to try and reduce dementia risk for former footballers.”
Several members of the 1966 England World Cup-winning squad, including Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, were suffering from dementia at the time of their deaths.
In 2002, an inquest recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease in the case of former West Brom striker Jeff Astle caused by repeated heading of the ball.
Stewart carried out a new examination on Astle’s brain in 2014 which concluded that the 59-year-old had died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
English football chiefs last year introduced guidance saying that footballers should engage in a maximum of 10 “higher force” headers during training in any one week.
Charlotte Cowie, head of performance medicine at the FA, said: “The launch of the BrainHope study is another important step in building our understanding of the long-term health of former professional footballers.
“Forming part of the wider Prevent Dementia study, this research will help us further understand the links between the game and neurodegenerative diseases and also potential early interventions which could help reduce risk or speed of developing dementia.”