Professional soccer players may be at higher risk of developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) compared to the general population.
The preliminary findings will be presented at the 2019 American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN) 71st Annual Meeting, May 4-10 in Philadelphia.
According to the study’s data, professional players are twice as likely to develop ALS compared to the general population and may start to experience the first symptoms of disease almost 22 years earlier than other people.
“There have been several deaths among Italian professional soccer players from ALS, and previous ALS research has found repeated head injuries may be a risk factor for the disease, so our study sought to determine if professional soccer players are more likely to get ALS than someone in the general population,” Ettore Beghi, MD, of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, Italy, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, and author of the study, said in a press release.
To explore this hypothesis, researchers gathered data from all professional soccer players who played in Italy between 1959 and 2000, based on archived soccer trading cards from Panini, the largest Italian football cards publisher.
Researchers recorded all information, including birthdate, place of birth, positions played and team history. Each player was followed since the first year of his professional career. All ALS cases were identified based on news reports.
Results showed that 33 soccer players developed ALS in their lifetime, which corresponds to an average of 3.2 cases per 100,000 people every year. Conversely, the calculated incidence rate of ALS in the Italian general population estimated a total of 17.6 cases during the same period of time, corresponding to an average of 1.7 cases per 100,000 people every year. This means that professional soccer players are nearly twice as likely to develop ALS within their lifetimes compared with the general population.
This difference in ALS incidence rates rose even further among soccer players under 45 years old, who were 4.7 times more likely to develop ALS than the general population.
In addition, researchers found that on average, players were diagnosed with ALS at 43.3 years old — 21.9 years earlier — than individuals from the general population who received their diagnosis around the age of 62.5 years old.
“It is important to note that repeated traumatic events, heavy physical exercise and substance use could also be factors in the increased ALS risk among soccer players,” Beghi said. “In addition, genetics may play a role.”
However, investigators noted that because these observations were based on professional players only, they may not hold true for those who play soccer at lower levels.
Beghi also added that people should not stop playing soccer based on these results alone, arguing that ALS continues to be an extremely rare disorder, even among those who play on a professional level.