Elite male Soccer Players were 1.5 times more likely to develop neurodegenerative disease compared to population controls, said an observational study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.
The Study included 6,007 male football players who played in the Swedish top division between 1924 to 2019.
In the study, the researchers said that elite football players had increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. However, they had lower risk for motor neuron disease (including ALS) and Parkinson’s disease.
Another major finding is that goalkeepers did not have an increased risk of dementia. They said that this could be because of mild head impacts sustained when heading the ball.
Peter Ueda, assistant professor at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, says , “importantly, our findings suggest that goalkeepers don’t have the same increased risk of neurodegenerative disease as outfield players. Goalkeepers rarely head the ball, unlike outfield players, but are exposed to similar environments and lifestyles during their football careers and perhaps also after retirement. It has been hypothesised that repetitive mild head trauma sustained through heading the ball is the reason football players are at increased risk, and it could be that the difference in neurodegenerative disease risk between these two types of players supports this theory.”
The study found nine per cent (537 out of 6,007) had neurodegenerative disease, compared to six per cent (3,485 out of 56,168) population controls.
In recent years, there have been growing concerns about exposure to head trauma in football (soccer) and whether it can lead to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease later in life. A previous study from Scotland suggested that footballers were 3.5 times more likely to develop neurodegenerative disease. Following this evidence, certain footballing associations implemented measures to reduce heading in younger age groups and training settings.
Peter Ueda says, “While the risk increase in our study is slightly smaller than in the previous study from Scotland, it confirms that elite footballers have a greater risk of neurogenerative disease later in life. As there are growing calls from within the 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.”
Björn Pasternak, senior researcher at Karolinska Institutet says, “The lower overall mortality we observed among footballers indicates that their overall health was better than the general population, likely because of maintaining good physical fitness from frequently playing football. Physical activity is associated with a lower risk of dementia, so it could be hypothesized that the potential risks from head impacts are being somewhat offset by having good physical fitness. Good physical fitness may also be the reason behind the lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.”