Footballers are 50% more likely to develop dementia, new study finds

Man heads ball during football match as study finds that footballers are more at risk of dementia. (Getty Images)
Findings show that former footballers are more at risk of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia than the general population. (Getty Images)

Former footballers are 50% more likely to develop dementia than the general population, a new study has found.

The findings are based on a large-scale study of players in Sweden’s top division, with one in 11 of the study participants found to have developed a form of dementia.

“The overall evidence supports the hypothesis that former elite football players are at increased risk of neurodegenerative disease, especially Alzheimer's disease and other dementias,” lead study author, Dr Peter Ueda, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said.

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Of the 6,007 former footballers studied, 537 (or 9%) were found to have a form of dementia, compared to 3,485 out of the 56,168 members of the general population, which equates to 6%.

“It has been hypothesised that the repetitive mild head trauma sustained and concussions might cause neurodegenerative disease,” Dr Ueda added.

“It could be that the difference in neurodegenerative disease risk between these two types of players supports this theory.”

Teenage soccer player feeling determined after heading the ball before her opponent on a playing field.
Outfielders are more at risk that goalies, the study found. (Getty Images)

The study period looked at footballers from 1924 to 2019, which means that it also included amateur footballers.

“Male football players in the Swedish top division had a 1.5-fold increased risk of neurodegenerative disease compared with population controls who were matched on sex, age and region of residence,” Dr Ueda explained.

He also clarified that goalkeepers did not have the same increased risk of dementia as outfield players, which supports “the hypothesis that mild head impacts sustained when heading the ball could explain the increased risk in outfield players”.

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“Importantly, our findings suggest goalkeepers don't have the same increased risk of neurodegenerative disease as outfield players,” he added.

“Goalkeepers rarely head the ball, unlike outfield players, but are exposed to similar environments and lifestyles during their football careers and perhaps also after retirement.”

The study, published in The Lancet Public Health journal, also found that mortality rates were lower among former footballers compared to the general population.

Brothers Jack Charlton (Leeds United, left) and Bobby Charlton (Manchester United), who have both been picked for the England team to play Austria at Wembley.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Former England footballers, Jack Charlton (left) died of dementia in 2020, the same year his brother, Sir Bobby Charlton (right) was diagnosed with the disease. (Getty Images)

“The lower overall mortality we observed among footballers indicates their overall health was better than the general population, likely because of maintaining good physical fitness from frequently playing football,” co-author Professor Bjorn Pasternak said.

“Physical activity is associated with a lower risk of dementia, so it could be hypothesised that the potential risks from head impacts are being somewhat offset by having good physical fitness.”

Last year, the English Football Association (FA) announced that it would trial removing deliberate heading in football matches for children under 12 for the 2022-2023 season.

“Should the trial be a success, the aim is to then remove deliberate heading from all football matches at U12 level and below from the 2023-24 season,” the FA said in a statement at the time.

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“This step will bring matches across these age groups in line with our current heading guidance for training, which already recommends that heading is eliminated or restricted at this level.”

Four members of England’s world cup winning team from 1966 have died from dementia, including Ray Wilson, Martin Peters, Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles.

Fellow England team member Sir Bobby Charlton, who is also the brother of Jack, was also diagnosed with dementia in 2020.

Additional reporting by SWNS.

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