Apart from goalkeepers, top-level Swedish soccer players were more likely to develop dementia than the general public over the past century, a major study presented on Friday suggested.
Experts say the study adds to “compelling evidence” linking the world’s most popular sport to a higher risk of degenerative brain disorders, and comes as head injury controversy rages in other codes such as rugby and the NFL.
Brain injuries, such as concussions, may be less common in soccer than in other sports, but repeated kicks by soccer players have been linked to dementia in the past.
The new study, published in The Lancet Public Health, analyzed the medical records of more than 6,000 male soccer players in Sweden’s top division from 1924 to 2019.
The researchers compared rates of dystrophic brain disorders with 56,000 Swedish men of a similar age.
The study found that soccer players were 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias than controls.
Goalkeepers who rarely needed to head the ball and did not show a high probability of dystrophic brain disorders were exceptional.
“This finding supports the hypothesis that ball control can explain this connection,” lead author Peter Ueda of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet told AFP.
Ueda said it was the largest study on the topic since a 2019 Scottish study that found soccer players were 3.5 times more likely to develop degenerative brain disease.
– “Protect people’s heads” –
The Swedish study also found that soccer players live slightly longer than men of a similar age, which Ueda says may be due to the training and higher socioeconomic status that comes with being an elite soccer player.
The study found a higher risk of motor neurone diseases such as ALS among football players, and an even lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Ueda cautioned that the observational study could not show that playing soccer was a direct cause of dementia, and that its findings could not be extrapolated to women’s, amateur or youth soccer.
Because the time between people playing football and developing these brain disorders is so long, most of the players in the study were active in the mid-20th century.