A study of former professional soccer players in Scotland finds that they were less likely to die of common causes such as heart disease and cancer compared with the general population but more likely to die from dementia. The results raise fresh concerns about head-related risks from playing the sport — at least for men at the pro level.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow reported the results in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday. They compared the causes of death of 7,676 Scottish men who played soccer with 23,000 similar men from the general population born between 1900 and 1976. Over a median of 18 years of study, 1,180 players and 3,807 of the others died.
The players had a lower risk of death from any cause until age 70.
However, they had a 3.5 times higher rate of death from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. In absolute terms, that risk remained relatively small — 1.7% among former players and 0.5% for the comparison group.
Former players also were more likely to be prescribed dementia medicines than the others were.
The results “should not engender undue fear and panic,” Dr. Robert Stern, a Boston University scientist who has studied sports-related brain trauma, wrote in a commentary published in the journal.
The findings in professional players may not apply to recreational, college or amateur-level play, or to women, Stern noted.
“Parents of children who headed the ball in youth or high-school soccer should not fear that their children are destined to have cognitive decline and dementia later in life. Rather, they should focus on the substantial health benefits from exercise and participation in a sport that their children enjoy,” while also being aware of the risks of head-balling, Stern wrote.
English Football Association chairman Greg Clark says “the whole game must recognize that this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered. It is important that the global football family now unites to find the answers and provide a greater understanding of this complex issue.”
The association and players’ union sponsored the study.
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