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expert reaction to study on former professional footballers and dementia risk

A study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, reports that dementia is more prevalent in former professional footballers than the general population.  

 

Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“This well-conducted study of long-term health in ex-professional footballers is the largest of its kind and fills an important gap in our knowledge about football and dementia. Former professional footballers enjoy several health benefits, but the strong association with dementia justifies calls for a global focus on research to understand this link further.

“The study has not looked at what aspect of players’ lives on and off the pitch may be behind their increased dementia risk, but there is a pressing need for further high-quality research to address this question. Alzheimer’s Research UK is acting as an independent advisor to the FA to help prioritise the direction of future research.

“While the research is limited by the accuracy of historic medical records, it’s only due to the quality and availability of medical records in Scotland that this work has been possible. The results form a solid basis for wider expert discussion about the impact of professional football on long-term brain health, including head injury, and we hope to see more data from this study in the coming months and years.

“The study focused on former professional football players and doesn’t tell us anything about whether the modern professional or grassroots game should change or how. With football close to the hearts of so many of us, football associations across the world must take the findings seriously and review emerging evidence to ensure players can enjoy the game safely at all levels.

“Dementia is caused by complex brain diseases and our risk is influenced by our genes, lifestyle and health. The best evidence suggests that good heart health is the best way to keep the brain healthy, so when played safely, a kick around with friends is still a great way to stay mentally and physically active.”

 

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, said:

“This is the longest and largest study on dementia and football to date and clearly shows retired professional footballers are at increased risk of dementia. But, it doesn’t say anything about the risk of a Saturday kick about in the park.

“It also doesn’t explain why playing professional football might be increasing someone’s risk of dementia and more studies looking at changes in the brain will help us do this. There have been changes in the game of football over the decades, for instance heavy leather balls used in the past have been replaced with the lighter latex and plastic ones used today, and the risks for the modern-day professional footballer may be different.

“So if you love kicking a ball around with your friends and family after work, don’t feel put off – what’s good for the heart is good for the head. If you are worried or concerned about your risk of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Society Helpline is here to help on 0300 222 1122”.

 

Prof John Hardy, Professor of Neuroscience, University College London (UCL), said:

“This study is broadly in line with the previous studies it references suggesting an increased risk of dementia in professional ex footballers. While one thinks of match day heading as the issue, this may not be the primary culprit.  Hours and hours of repetitive practice may be one aspect of the game and training which should be carefully considered and assessed.”

 

Neurodegenerative Disease Mortality among Former Professional Soccer Players’ by Mackay et al. was published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Monday 21st October.

DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1908483

 

Declared interests

Prof John Hardy: None

Dr Carol Routledge: On the Independent Medical Advisory Group.

Dr James Pickett: Alzheimer’s Society has partnered with the Professional Football Association to provide a dedicated helpline to support members concerned about developing dementia.

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