There are many sports where blows to the head are the daily bread. That boxers or football players can develop problems resulting from this would not surprise anyone, but football would not seem a particularly dangerous sport for our brains. But it seems that it is.
Occupational hazards. A recent study carried out on former professional soccer players has found an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases in them. The researchers observed a 62% increased risk of dementia compared to the average risk (which is around 10-20% in the general population).
However, the researchers observed that the risk of suffering from Parkinson’s disease was somewhat lower among soccer players, 32% lower, specifically. The work also compared the occurrence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), although in this case the prevalence was too small to obtain significant results.
Mind you, professional soccer players had a slightly higher life expectancy than Swedish men. Perhaps, after all, practicing sports can compensate in this specific context.
The loneliness of the goalkeeper. Although the study confirms an increased risk of dementia, certain conclusions cannot be drawn about the operation of causal relationships. One of the observations the researchers make is that this increased risk does not affect goalkeepers.
From there they speculate on the possibility that headers and clashes in the field could be the cause of this greater risk.
“But it is also possible that the observed link could be attributed to other factors specific to soccer players. Nor can we draw conclusions about the risk faced by today’s male and female players, neither in amateur or youth categories, “explained Peter Ueda, one of the authors of the study, in a press release.
More than 6,000 players. The researchers took a sample of more than 6,000 soccer players who had been active in the Swedish men’s first division between 1924 and 2019. They compared their information with a sample of 56,000 Swedish men, paying attention to factors such as age and place of residence.
Details of this study appeared in The Lancet Public Health.
“Not so alarming.” This is not the first study to associate an increased risk of dementia with professional football practice. Another recent study conducted in the United Kingdom (Scotland) produced even more compelling figures: a three to five-fold increase in the risk of suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia, ALS and Parkinson’s.
“Our results are not as alarming as those of the Scottish study,” explained Ueda. We do not know why the results of the two studies are partly different and we would need more detailed data on spikes and header collisions to study whether there are possible causal relationships, and if so, how large they are.”
The neurologist Marc Suárez-Calvet (who did not take part in the study) pointed out that the real data could be even more compelling than the results obtained by this study: “Taking into account that physical exercise is a protective factor for the development of any type of dementia, this association might even be underestimated.”
How soccer changes. The authors also point out that soccer has changed a lot over the last century, which implies that players active today may be less exposed to future neurological problems. This includes the way of playing but also the fact that the synthetic material balls used today have little to do with those of yesteryear.
The effect of these changes on dementia risk is not yet clear. We will have to wait to better understand what is going on in the heads of soccer players. A rather complicated job, no doubt.
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Image | Rolandhino1, CC BY-SA
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