#AAN2019 – Pro Soccer Players More Likely to Develop ALS, Preliminary Study Says

#AAN2019 – Pro Soccer Players More Likely to Develop ALS, Preliminary Study Says

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.


  1. I wanted to bring up a possible trigger to get feedback from my fellow pALS. I feel like severe dehydration could be one possible trigger for ALS. One of the reasons I bring this up because it is known that military veterans and NFL players have a much higher prevalence of ALS diagnosis than the general population. Our military personnel are put through intense physical training that often results in dehydration. When deployed they may find themselves without access to clean drinking water. In the NFL, coaches used to famously withhold water from players as motivation during training camp. It’s not uncommon for players to need IV fluids due to cramping during the game. Just in the past few years we’ve learned of several former players diagnosed ALS, including Tim Shaw, Steve Gleason, Kevin Turner, O.J. Brigance, Dwight Clark, and Tim Green, among others. And now this study that shows professional soccer players are twice as likely to develop ALS than the general population.
    While I’ve never been an elite athlete, I’ve always been active. I grew up in the 1970’s when we weren’t reminded enough about drinking water and replacing electrolytes. I’d often be hiking or doing long bicycle rides (75 miles or more) with just one bottle of water, and then would find myself cramping later that evening. As I grew older, I was better about trying to remain hydrated. But in 2007, during a beach volleyball tournament, I became severely dehydrated. I cramped terribly in nearly every muscle in my body. I was rushed to the ER, and received 3 liters of IV fluids. Since then, I tend to cramp very easily. Cramps in my sides are very common after even minor exercise where I sweat. I began experiencing slurred speech and muscle weakness in April of 2015, and was diagnosed with ALS in October of that year. I can’t help but suspect if these items are related. I would love to hear from fellow pALS if they have any similar experience.

  2. David Buschhorn says:

    Then they found out the players were faking.

    Doctor comes in and the patient is rolling around on the ground wailing as though they’re dying…


  3. Lee says:

    Jason, I’m wondering about extreme fatigue and depression as possibilities in addition to your mention of dehydration. I worked as a UPS driver for 30 years… pushing oneself beyond what your body tells you is enough for extended time would cause all these things. I do believe there must be a gene or two that are susceptible, or more people would get ALS.

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