Watching football can be good for mental wellbeing, a dementia expert has said. As England fans gear up to watch their team’s quarter-final clash with Sweden, Professor Alistair Burns said that older people in particular can benefit from watching classic football matches such as England’s 1966 World Cup final victory.
Watching replays of sporting events can improve mental health and wellbeing by keeping the brain active and stimulating memories.
Prof Burns, who is NHS England’s clinical director for dementia, said several members of the golden generation of 1966 have experienced dementia, with winners Nobby Stiles and Martin Peters currently living with the condition.
He said: “Although fans may not feel it this week, football can be good for your nerves. The beautiful game really can help your mind and body.
“As well as being great physical exercise, there is a positive link between watching classic football matches and keeping the mind active.
“For people in old age and dealing with dementia, re-watching matches can rekindle past memories, connect people with their past and keep the brain active.
“Johan Cruyff was right when he said that football is a game you play with your mind, and sport of any kind has a unique power to keep the brain going.”
Prof Burns said the power of sport can stimulate emotion which can be revived many years after the event.
Emotional memory, which is one of two main types of memory in the human brain, can be more powerful than memory for personal events, so as people in later life relive exciting or tense moments it can stimulate memories, potentially strengthening brain activity.
There is considerable overlap between the experience of people living with types of dementia and mental ill health.
Across the UK, 850,000 people are estimated to live with dementia, while mental ill health affects almost eight million people aged over 55.
An Age UK survey last year showed that conditions such as depression and anxiety affect more than half of people aged over 55 – nearly eight million people – with one in five saying their condition has deteriorated as they have got older.
Tony Jameson-Allen, co-founder of the Sporting Memories Foundation, which tackles dementia, depression and loneliness, said: “Sport unites communities and generations, it stirs the soul and can reawaken powerful emotions.
“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 that can be used to unite generations to tackle three of the biggest challenges facing an ageing population; dementia, depression and loneliness.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “Times like this weekend, 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 and engage with others are less frequent than they used to be, or than they’d ideally like.”