Why watching football can help people with dementia

Like the rest of the country, we are absolutely gripped by the World Cup. Even the least football-loving are getting involved. But aside from a collective sense of patriotism and excitement, it turns out there could be some genuine health benefits to watching football.

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Professor Alistair Burns, NHS England’s clinical director for dementia, says that for older people, re-watching classic sporting events can keep the brain stimulated by triggering specific emotional memories. ‘The beautiful game really can help your mind and body, he says.  ‘[T]here is a positive link between watching classic football matches and keeping the mind active.’

Emotional memory (as opposed to factual memory), caused by re-living very tense of exciting moments, is thought to be particularly effective at boosting brain activity. In fact, there is a charity dedicated to fighting dementia, depression and loneliness in older generations through the power of sport.

The Sporting Memories Foundation helps communities to organise ‘sporting reminiscence projects’, and also has a huge online archive of sporting memories from iconic football matches, to historic F1 races.

England’s triumph at the World Cup 1966 (Photo: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

It’s estimated that 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia. Tony Jameson-Allen, co-founder of the Sporting Memories Foundation, told the Press Association: ‘Every week we witness the positive impact recalling golden moments of great sporting moments has on the physical and mental wellbeing of our group members, many of whom live with dementia.

‘Be it Kenneth Wolstenholme’s iconic commentary as Sir Geoff Hurst scored his hat-trick, Nobby Stiles doing a jig of delight or Bobby Moore being hoisted on to the team’s shoulders holding aloft the Jules Rimet Trophy, these great moments can bring back wonderful, positive memories.’

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK also emphasised the social benefits of watching sport for older people struggling with loneliness: ‘Times like this, when many of us of all ages will be glued to the TV watching England at the World Cup create a positive atmosphere – we hope! – and a sense of us all being involved in something that’s bigger than ourselves. That’s a tonic for everyone, especially perhaps for older people whose opportunities to get out & engage with others are less frequent than they used to be, or than they’d ideally like.’