Top football players, with the exception of goalkeepers, have had a century-long increased risk of developing dementia compared to the general population, according to a large Swedish study published on Friday.
Experts said the study provided "compelling evidence" of the link between the world's most popular sport and an increased risk of degenerative brain disorders, a link already highlighted by the death in 2020 of champion Nobby Stiles. world in 1966 with England and suffering from dementia, and by other cases concerning sports such as rugby, American football or ice hockey, because of the shocks suffered by the players.
The study, published in the scientific journal The Lancet Public Health, analyzed the medical records of more than 6,000 Swedish Premier League players between 1924 and 2019. It then compared the occurrence rate of degenerative brain disorders to that of a sample of 56,000 Swedes. Football players had a 1.5 times higher risk than the control group of developing diseases like Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. Goalkeepers are an exception in the study, as they don't make heads.
"This research supports the hypothesis that heading explains the link" between football and brain disease, the study's lead author, Peter Ueda, of Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, told AFP. It's the largest study on the subject since a 2019 Scottish study that suggested footballers were 3.5 times more likely than the general population to develop degenerative brain disorders.
In contrast, the Swedish study found that professional gamers had a slightly higher life expectancy than the average male. This could be explained, according to Peter Ueda, by better physical shape and a higher socio-economic status. The study did not identify an increased risk of developing neuromotor diseases, such as Charcot's disease (ALS), and even noted a lower incidence of Parkinson's disease.
Peter Ueda warned that the study, based on observation, was unable to show that playing football was the direct cause of the onset of dementia. And that his findings did not extend to women and amateur or junior players. The theoretical time of occurrence between the player's career and the onset of symptoms of degenerative diseases is very long. According to Peter Ueda, better equipment, training and coaching could make football safer for modern professional players.
"But one can also imagine that current players are exposed to intense football from an early age and thus the risk is even higher for them," he noted. For Gill Livingston, professor of psychiatry for the elderly at University College London, this "high quality" study provides "compelling evidence" that footballers whose head comes into contact with the ball are at greater risk of dementia than mean. "We must act to protect players' heads and brains so that the game continues," concluded Gill Livingston, who was not involved in the study.