Footballers are one and a half times more likely to develop dementia than the general population, a new study suggests.
Swedish researchers compared the health data of 6,007 elite male soccer players, 510 of whom were goalkeepers, between 1924 and 2019 with 56,168 non-soccer players.
A team from the Karolinska Institute and other research centers published their research in the prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet.
It was found that 9% of the football players enrolled were diagnosed neurodegenerative diseasecompared to 6% of the control sample (3,485 of 56,168).
According to the study, there was no significant increase in the risk of motor neurone disease in soccer players.
The researchers found that the risk of Parkinson’s disease and overall mortality was also lower in football players compared to other people.
The scientists behind the study suggested that this could be “due to maintaining good physical fitness from playing football frequently”.
The study also compared the risk of neurodegenerative disease between outfielders and goalies. Field players were found to have a 1.4 times higher risk of neurodegenerative disease than goalkeepers.
Peter Ueda, assistant professor at the Karolinska Institute, says: “Goalkeepers rarely head the ball, unlike outfield players, but are exposed to similar environments and lifestyles during their football careers and perhaps even after retirement.
“Repetitive mild head trauma from heading the ball is thought to be the reason soccer players are at increased risk, and it may be that the difference in risk of neurodegenerative disease between these two types of players supports this theory.”
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In recent years, there has been growing concern about the impact of head injury in football and whether it may lead to a later-life risk of neurodegenerative disease.
A previous study from Scotland found that footballers were 3.5 times more likely to develop the neurodegenerative disease.
Following this evidence, some football associations have taken measures to reduce headscarves in younger age groups and training venues.
Mr. Ueda added: “Although the increased risk in our study is slightly smaller than in the previous Scottish study, it does confirm that elite footballers have an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease later in life.
“As there are growing calls from within sport to do more to protect brain health, our study adds to the limited evidence base and can be used to inform decisions about how to manage these risks.”
The Football Association is currently trying to ban children under the age of 12 from heading the ball in England’s major leagues and tournaments.