Watching England at the world cup ‘good for your nerves’ claims NHS doctor

It’s a claim that might sound far-fetched to many England fans as they gear up to watch the team’s quarter-final clash with Sweden this afternoon, but a senior doctor has claimed that watching football can be good for mental wellbeing.

The NHS director has said that for older people in particular there are clear benefits from watching classic football matches like England’s 1966 world cup final victory, including keeping the brain active and stimulating memories. Several members of the nation’s golden generation of 1966 have experienced dementia, with winners Nobby Stiles and Martin Peters currently living with the condition.

The physical benefits of playing football and other sports are well-known, but as the World Cup knock-out phase lifts off this weekend, the NHS’ leading dementia expert is encouraging older people, particularly anyone with dementia, to watch replays of sporting events as a way of improving mental health and wellbeing.

NHS England Clinical Director for Dementia, Alistair Burns, 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, rewatching matches can rekindle past memories, connect people with their past and keep the brain active.

“Johann 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.”

NHS England’s director for dementia says that 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, this 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. A survey last year from Age UK showed that conditions like depression and anxiety affect over half of people aged over 55 – nearly eight million people – with one in five of these people saying that their condition deteriorates as they get older.

Tony Jameson-Allen, Co-founder of Sporting Memories, said: “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 onto 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.”

“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 our group members, many of whom live with dementia.”

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: “Sport means a lot to many people in our society & that doesn’t have to change as we age. Whether it’s playing walking football or engaging in a more traditional activity such as bowls or swimming, there are lots of ways in which older people can continue to be ‘sporty’ – doing themselves no end of mental and physical good as a result.

“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 & engage with others are less frequent than they used to be, or than they’d ideally like.”