The risk of neurodegenerative disease was 46% higher among soccer players who played in the Swedish top division than in the general population, according to Dr. Peter Ueda of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and co-authors.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia were 62% more common among soccer players than controls, the researchers reported in Lancet Public Health.
Goalkeepers did not have an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease but outfield players did, suggesting repetitive hits from heading the ball may be a factor.
“We need to take steps to minimize risk by increasing the age at which children begin heading, and then take steps to reduce the frequency and magnitude of headers,” Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston told MedPage Today.
With this new data, scientists believe measures could be taken to protect brain health in soccer.
The lower overall mortality could indicate that elite soccer players have better overall health and physical fitness than the general population, said study co-author Dr. Björn Pasternak, also of the Karolinska Institute.
“Physical activity is associated with a lower risk of dementia, so it could be hypothesized that the potential risks from head impacts are being somewhat offset by having good physical fitness,” Pasternak said. “Good physical fitness may also be the reason behind the lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.”