Diseases Like ALS Common Cause of Death for Former Soccer Players, Scottish Study Finds

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by Alice Melão |

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soccer and brain injury

Athletes who played professional football — known as soccer in the U.S. — are more than three times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease than are the general population, a study from Scotland has found.

Its researchers compared causes of death over 18 years for about 7,700 former professional players and 23,000 other adults in that country, identifying dementias and diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as common primary or contributing causes of mortality among the ex-athletes during that time.

The study, “Neurodegenerative Disease Mortality among Former Professional Soccer Players,” was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Awareness is growing about the potential association between contact sports like American football and soccer, and the risk of a neurodegenerative disease later in life, possibly because of traumatic injuries sustained to the brain during matches.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow reviewed health records and analyzed causes of death for 7,676 former professional Scottish soccer players, comparing the collected information to that of 23,028 individuals from the general population, serving as controls and matched to the players by gender, age, and socio-economic measures.

A total of 1,180 players (15.4%) and 3,807 controls (16.5%) died over a median follow-up of 18 years.

Their analysis showed that, up to the age of 70, mortality was lower for soccer players, possibly reflecting “higher levels of physical activity and lower levels of obesity and smoking in elite athletes than in the general population,” the researchers wrote.

After the age of 70, however, mortality rates for these former athletes surpassed the general population.

Information from death certificates showed that death rates due to coronary heart disease and lung cancer were lower among former soccer players than controls, but these people were 3.5 times more likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease compared to the general population.

In fact, neurodegenerative diseases were reported as the primary cause of death for 1.7% of the former soccer players and 0.5% of individuals in the general population.

The risk of death varied according to the type of neurodegenerative disease, researchers reported. Among former players, that risk — with a neurodegenerative disease as the primary or contributing cause of death — was highest for those with Alzheimer’s (5.07-times higher), followed by those with motor neuron disease like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, 4.33 times higher) and Parkinson’s disease (2.15 times higher).

No significant differences in these rates were seen between athletes who were goalkeepers and those who played outfield positions.

Former soccer players were also 4.9 times more likely to be prescribed dementia-related medications, particularly outfield players, compared to the general population.

“In summary, our data show that mortality from neurodegenerative disease was higher and prescriptions of dementia-related medications were more common among former professional soccer players than among controls from the Scottish population,” the researchers wrote.

Further and controlled studies are needed to confirm these findings, they added.