Elite footballers show a 1.5 times greater risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, indicates an observational study carried out with 6,007 male players who played in the Swedish championship, between 1924 and 2019.
According to the investigation released this Friday in the magazine The LancetPublic Healthto which the Lusa agency had access, 9% of the sample (corresponding to 537 athletes) had brain pathologies, in contrast to 6% (3,485 of 56,168 people) of population controls.
Despite noting that most of these participants were still alive at the end of data collection for the study, the authors warn that the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases in the two analyzed groups “will probably be higher”.
Soccer players were 1.6 times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other dementias, adding up to 8% (491 individuals) diagnosed versus 5% (2,889) of controls, but this trend did not have a significant rise in motor neuron disease – including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – and was lower for Parkinson’s.
By exploring Sweden’s national health records, from which diagnoses, deaths and use of prescription drugs for dementia were analysed, the investigation also concluded that field athletes are 1.4 times more at risk compared to goalkeepers.
“Goalkeepers rarely head the ball, but they are exposed to environments and lifestyles similar to those of outfield players during their careers and perhaps after their retirement. repetitive strain suffered while heading the ball is the reason why footballers are at greater risk, it may be that the difference in risk of neurodegenerative disease between the two types of athletes supports this theory,” noted Peter Ueda, assistant professor at the Karolinska Institute.
With overall mortality being slightly lower in all players than among control groups (40% versus 42%), Björn Pasternak, senior researcher at Stockholm’s public university, recalls the benefits of frequent competition.
“Physical activity is linked to a lower risk of dementia. It can be assumed that the potential risks of impacts on the head are somewhat offset by good physical fitness, which may also be the reason behind the lower risk of Parkinson’s”, he analyzed .
Reports of dementia and other brain pathologies in advanced age of former players have recently warned about exposure to head trauma in football, in a debate with greater scientific and legal progress in contact and combat sports.
In October 2019, the largest ever investigation in the specialty conducted by the University of Glasgow estimated a mortality rate of former footballers from neurodegenerative diseases about three and a half times higher than the population average.
“While the increased risk in our study is slightly less than that in Scotland, it confirms that top football players have a higher risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases later in life. measures that protect brain health, this study adds to the evidence base and can be used to guide decisions about how to manage these risks,” said Peter Ueda, one of eight authors involved in the Swedish research.
If UEFA and the federations of British countries have modified their guidelines to reduce exposure to heading in younger age groups and in training environments, the International Board (IFAB), regulator of football rules, is testing since 2021 the inclusion of additional substitutions in case of suspected concussion in the game.