Professional footballers are at higher risk of dementia

Professional athletes can suffer various injuries that complicate their long-term health; Some of the most delicate are those that derive from continuous blows to the head, such as American football players or boxers, who develop Parkinson’s after receiving blows. Now a study has found that elite soccer players have up 1.5 more likely to suffer from neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia o Alzheimer’s than the rest of the population because they hit the ball with their heads.

An earlier study by the University of Glasgow (Scotland) showed that the death rate of former professional footballers from neurodegenerative diseases is around three and a half times higher. In 2021, when their results had already been published, the English Football Association recommended that a limit be established on the number of hitting the ball with the head that the players will perform during training.

In the new research, the data of 6,007 soccer players who played in the Swedish league between 1924 and 2019 have been analyzed and compared with those of a control group that included more than 56,000 men who lived in the same area and they were the same age. 9% (537) of the athletes were diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, while in the control group they were detected in 6% (3,485 of 56,168). Between the goalkeeperwho are not exposed to so many blows to the head, 38 cases were diagnosed out of 510 individuals studied (7.5%).

“It has been hypothesized that repetitive mild head injuries sustained from heading the ball are the reason soccer players are at higher risk”

“It has been hypothesized that the head injuries light repetitive headed the ball are the reason why soccer players are at higher risk, and it could be that the difference in risk of neurodegenerative diseases between outfield soccer players and goalkeepers supports this theory,” says Peter Ueda, professor assistant at the Karolinska Institutet and one of the authors of the study.

62% higher risk of dementia in soccer players

The results have been published in The Lancet and revealed that the footballers had a 62% increased risk of dementia compared to the control group. However, the risk of Parkinson’s disease was 32% lower and the soccer players lived on average slightly longer than other men. There were no conclusive findings on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) because it is very rare.

“Our results were not as alarming as those of the Scottish study,” said Peter Ueda. “We don’t know why the results of the two studies are partially different and we would need more detailed data on headers and collisions with the ball to study whether there are possible causal relationships and, if so, what their relevance is. Dementia is a common disease with a lifetime risk of 10-20%. In a nutshell, our results indicate that the lifetime risk of a first division footballer active in Sweden until the middle of the last century is around 15 to 30%.”

The researchers have explained that many of the players included in the study were relatively young or still active, so they had not reached the age at which neurodegenerative diseases usually develop. In addition, playing styles, training routines and equipment have changed since the last century and the risks that today’s elite players are exposed to may be different from those of soccer players who were active until the middle of the century. xx. As an example, Peter Ueda points out that the leather balls that were used until the second half of the 20th century have been replaced by synthetic balls that do not absorb water.

“While the increased risk in our study is slightly less than in the previous study from Scotland, it confirms that elite footballers are at increased risk of neurodegenerative disease later in life. As there are increasing calls within sport for greater measures to protect brain health, our study adds to the limited evidence base and can be used to guide decisions on how to manage these risks,” says Peter Ueda, Professor the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.


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