A years-long study in Sweden revealed that male soccer players are 1.5 percent more likely than the general population to develop dementia.
9 percent of them contracted the disease, compared to 6 percent among others. However, the study showed that goalkeepers are not more likely than other players.
It is believed that hitting the ball with the head repeatedly is related to the disease, but dementia has many other causes.
A Scottish study revealed, earlier, a higher incidence of dementia among soccer players, compared to others.
The study concluded that old soccer players are three and a half times more likely to die from dementia than the general population of their age.
This prompted football federations in Britain and Europe to take measures to reduce hitting the ball with the head, in children, during play, and in adults, during training.
The new study, published in the journal Public Health, The Lancet, compared the health of 6,000 players who played football in elite Swedish clubs between 1924 and 2019, and the health of 56,000 other people of the same age and region, but who did not play football.
The study found that soccer players experience:
- Risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia
- No greater risk of developing brain-damaging diseases such as the motor neuron
- Less risk of Parkinson’s disease
But goalkeepers, who rarely head the ball, have no higher risk of dementia than other players.
It is believed that hitting the ball with the head repeatedly causes mild trauma to the brain, such as a concussion, and leads to dementia, with age.
“The difference in the risk of developing brain degenerative diseases between these two types of players seems to reinforce this theory,” said researcher Dr. Peter Ueda, from the Karolinska Institutet.
But many questions remain.
A head injury is only one factor among many others that increase the risk of dementia, including:
- alcohol consumption
- Inactivity and obesity
Another factor that plays a big role is age and heredity.
Dr Sarah Imaricio, of Alzheimer’s Research, UK, says more research is needed to fully understand the reasons for this high risk.
Heading may have been a contributing factor, but other factors in players’ lives, off and on the field, may also have a role.
The researchers admit that they did not obtain information about the players’ lives, nor did they obtain data on the number of head injuries the players suffered.
Most players with dementia played for elite clubs in the 1950s and 1960s, when the ball was heavier and made of leather.
And you do not yet know the risks that players face today, including female players in elite clubs, youth players, and amateur players.
But the players in the study were healthier than the general population, and this may have given them protection against some diseases.
Study co-author Bjorn Pasternak believes that the risk of head trauma may have “been eliminated thanks to good health,” which explains the low rate of Parkinson’s disease.
Professor Sarah Spiers-Jones, from the University of Edinburgh, said: “There is significant evidence that physical activity reduces dementia risk in the general population.
She adds that what she recommends is: “Protecting your brain lies in physical activity and avoiding trauma and head injuries.”
There are many types of dementia, the most famous of which is Alzheimer’s, and its symptoms worsen over time, including memory loss, difficulty concentrating and thinking, language impairments, and behavioral changes.
There are 900,000 people with dementia in the UK, and 57 million worldwide. Most of them are over the age of 65, and these numbers are expected to rise in the coming years.