Soccer Players Found to Have Higher Risk of Developing Dementia

Soccer Players Found to Have Higher Risk of Developing Dementia

There's been plenty of focus lately on the brain health of American football players, particularly on chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a condition commonly found in former players. CTE is a progressive brain disease linked with repeated traumatic brain injuries, like concussions and blows to the head. New research finds that another kind of football player may also be at risk of serious impacts to their brain health.

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden recently examined dementia risk among soccer players in the country's highest level of competition, Allsvenskan, finding that these athletes faced a higher risk of developing dementia. Their study findings, published in The Lancet Public Health, build on previous research out of Scotland that found former professional soccer players were three- to five-times more likely to develop a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia.

Peter Ueda, lead researcher and assistant professor at the Department of Medicine, Solna, at Karolinska Institutet, says, "Our results were not as alarming as those of the Scottish study. We don’t know why the results of the two studies are partly different and would need more detailed data on headers and head collisions to study if there are possible causal relationships, and if so, how large they are. Dementia is a common disease with a lifetime risk of 10 to 20 percent. Put very simply, our results indicate that the lifetime risk of a top-division footballer active in Sweden up to the middle of the last century is around 15 to 30 percent."

For their study, Ueda's team looked at health data from more than 6,000 athletes who played in Allsvenskan between 1924 and 2019, compared with data from a control group of more than 56,000 men of the same age and from the same regions. The researchers found that for the first group, the risk of dementia was 62 percent higher. They say this was only found in outfield players, not goalkeepers, though, which may mean that heading the ball and head collisions are behind the increased risk.

However, Ueda says, "It’s also possible that the observed link is attributable to other factors specific to football players. We also cannot draw any conclusions about the risk faced by today’s male and female elite players, nor by amateur and youth players."

This study also uncovered some apparent benefits for soccer players, with the study participants found to have a 32 percent lower risk of developing Parkinson's disease. The athletes had a slightly longer lifespan on average than other men, as well. Other studies have also linked physical activity with a lower risk of dementia, so there's a chance the players' athleticism may be also provide some brain benefits at the same time.

Björn Pasternak, study co-author and senior researcher at the Department of Medicine, says, "It could be that the risks of dementia are being somewhat offset by the footballers’ higher levels of physical activity. Good physical fitness may also be the reason behind the lower risk of Parkinson’s disease."

The researchers pointed out limitations of the study, including that many of the study participants were still young or still playing, so they may not have reached the age at which neurodegenerative diseases are apt to develop. The researchers also say that since playing styles, practice routines, and equipment have changed, the risk for current players may not be the same as those in the past.

Despite the limitations, the researchers say their findings should help expand on the understanding and management of risks to brain health stemming from soccer.

Michelle Milliken

Michelle has a journalism degree and has spent more than seven years working in broadcast news. She's also been known to write some silly stuff for humor websites. When she's not writing, she's probably getting lost in nature, with a fully-stocked backpack, of course.

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