New Study Finds Footballers Are 50% More Likely to Develop Dementia

footballers martinez and shar challenge for the ball
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Following calls in recent years to ban heading in football due to a rise in the number of former players dying and living with neurodegenerative diseases, the latest study on the issue has found that outfield players are 50% more likely to develop dementia than the general population.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden compared the health records of 6,007 elite male football players with 56,168 non-footballers between 1924 and 2019. They found that 8.9% of players were diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, compared to 6.2% of the control sample.

The study’s findings state: ‘In this cohort study, male football players who had played in the Swedish top division had a significantly increased risk of neurodegenerative disease compared with population controls.’

The same trend was not observed among goalkeepers, however, who rarely head the ball. ‘The risk of neurodegenerative disease was higher for outfield players than controls but not for goalkeepers versus controls,’ the study states, ‘and outfield players had a higher risk of neurodegenerative disease than did goalkeepers.’

The study also found that there was no greater risk to footballers of developing motor neurone disease, while the risk of Parkinson’s disease and overall mortality was lower compared to the general population.

Referring to the connection between heading and the study's findings, the report says that 'the repetitive mild head trauma sustained through heading the ball and concussions might cause neurodegenerative disease', however, 'it's probable that exposures related to football are extreme among elite players and that potential associations with neurodegenerative disease, if any, are less pronounced among recreational players'.

For the current 2022-23 season, The Football Association has introduced a new trial to remove deliberate heading in U12 matches and younger. If successful, the FA will apply for a law change for the same age groups for the 2023-24 season.

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