Increased incidence of dementia in footballers due to head trauma

25 Oct 2019

A recent study has found that footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than those of a similar age in the general population.

The research was triggered by concerns that the death of professional footballer Jeff Astle was associated with head trauma from repeatedly ‘heading’ the heavy leather footballs.

Astle, who played both locally as a West Brom striker and internationally, died in 2002 at the age of 59. The inquest into his death found heading heavy leather footballs repeatedly had contributed to trauma to his brain, but initial research into this was later dropped due to ‘technical flaws’.

Under duress from Astle’s family, the Football Association and the Professional Footballers' Association commissioned the study from Glasgow University last year, and a sample compared the deaths of 7,676 ex-players to 23,000 people from the general population.

Researcher, consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, said that

‘risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer's disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold Parkinson's disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls’.

In addition, the research found that the same sample had a lower than average likelihood of death from other common diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers such as lung cancer.

This, the largest study yet to examine the incidence of neurodegenerative conditions amongst any sport, not only football, opens the door to further examination of contact sports and long term conditions, whilst also shedding specific light on the benefits of such sports.

To read the full article from the BBC visit the BBC Sports newspage or find the research article online.

Research article reference: Mackay, D. F. , Russell, E. R., Stewart, K., MacLean, J. A., Pell, J. P. and Stewart, W. (2019) Neurodegenerative disease mortality among former professional soccer players. New England Journal of Medicine, (doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1908483) (Early Online Publication)

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