A study carried out in the highest division of Swedish football and published by the prestigious magazine The Lancet Public Health, indicates that elite soccer players are 1.5 times more likely than the rest of the population to develop neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. This is not the case, however, in the case of the goalkeepers who, compared to their field mates, head the ball much less. The sample includes 6,007 soccer players who played between 1924 and 2019 in the Scandinavian country’s league.
Another of the conclusions of the publication is that the risk of suffering from diseases that affect motor neurons (such as ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) does not increase. And, in the case of Parkinson’s, the risk is lower compared to the rest of the population. Among the 6,007 male soccer players in the Swedish First Division studied, 9% (537) were diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, while controls in the rest of the population detected 6% (3,485 of 56,168). Diagnosed goalkeepers were 38 out of 510, 7.5%.
According to Peter Ueda, an assistant professor at the Karolinska Institutet, who has participated in the study, that responds to a theory. “It has been hypothesized that repetitive mild head injuries sustained from heading 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 the goalkeepers support this theory. This is also appreciated by David Curtis, honorary professor at the UCL Genetics Institute in statements to SMC. “This study replicates previous findings that playing professional soccer is associated with a substantially increased risk of dementia. It seems extremely plausible that repeatedly heading the ball during practice and play causes brain damage that can lead to dementia over time. The fact that it does not increase the risk for goalkeepers, who rarely head the ball, reinforces this hypothesis.”
Another study carried out in Scotland in 2019 with the support of the English federation and the players’ union came to a similar conclusion. The research, in that case, suggested that soccer players (it did not differentiate between goalkeepers and outfield players) were 3.5 times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases. It is precisely for this reason that some federations have implemented measures to reduce headbutts in training in younger age groups. They have done it, for example, the English, Scottish and Northern Ireland federations (it is prohibited to hit or head off those under 12 years of age). The American was also a pioneer, being the first to prohibit, in 2015, headbutts in training for children under 10 years of age and recommending limiting them in the age range between 11 and 13.
Last August, the International Board (IFAB) approved a test protocol -mandatory compliance- with the prohibition of “intentionally heading the ball” in all competitions and matches in sub-12 and lower categories. Not respecting the rule entails a sanction of a foul for the rival team. The English Federation and the United States are participating in the pilot project, which will send the data collected to the IFAB. To join, all you have to do is request permission from the IFAB and commit to submitting the data and the corresponding assessments.
In the study carried out in Sweden, a significant increase in the risk for players of suffering diseases such as ALS was not observed, 0.3% (14 of 5,497) with respect to the general population, 0.2% (100 of 56,168). And as for Parkinson’s, the risk is lower among soccer players than among the general population, 1% versus 1.3%. Overall mortality was slightly lower among soccer players compared to the study control group. (40% vs. 42%).
Björn Pasternak, principal investigator at the Karolinska Institutet, assesses it this way: “The lower general mortality that we observed among soccer players indicates that their general health was better than that of the general population, probably because they maintain good physical shape by playing football. soccer frequently. Physical activity is associated with a lower risk of dementia, so it could be hypothesized that the potential risks of head impacts are somewhat offset by good physical fitness. Good physical condition may also be the reason behind the lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.”
It is signed by Gill Livingston, professor of elderly psychiatry at University College London: “It is important to bear in mind that people who play football live longer than the people they are compared to. People fear developing dementia: these findings point to ways we can reduce it, and not just for footballers. We need to act to protect people’s heads and brains and keep practicing sport.”
The authors, on the other hand, have put the magnifying glass on some limitations of their study. Neurodegenerative diseases, for example, often develop over the years, and most of the players in the study who were old enough to have developed one of these conditions played elite soccer in the mid-20th century. Since then, the authors note, “soccer has changed in many ways that may affect the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.”
And they cite the change of balls (from leather to synthetic, which do not absorb water and do not become heavier as in the past), the way of training -more rigorous and professional- or the change in style of play associated with less head trauma may have reduced the risk. On the other hand, they point out, the risk could be higher among soccer players who today train and play more intensely from a very young age. Hence the measures that some federations have taken -after the alert promoted by various studies- so that children under 12 years of age do not nod.
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