football generic
For illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Pixbay

London: Professional footballers have a three-and-a-half times higher chance of suffering from degenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinsons, a study by the University of Glasgow has revealed.

The study by academics at the Scottish university on Monday revealed the first major insights into lifelong health outcomes in former professional footballers, reports Xinhua news agency.

It is the largest ever study looking in detail at the incidence of neurodegenerative disease in any sport, not just professional footballers, said consultant neuropathologist Professor Willie Stewary, who led the research.

In its findings, researchers compared the causes of death of 7,676 former Scottish male professional football players who were born between 1900 and 1976 against those of more than 23,000 matched individuals from the general population.

The study, funded by the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), found that former professional footballers had an approximately three and a half times higher rate of death due to neurodegenerative disease than expected.

"The strength of our study design is that we could look in detail at rates of different neurodegenerative disease subtypes," Stewart said.

This analysis revealed 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."

The study also found that although footballers had higher risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, they were less likely to die of other common diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, including lung cancer.

"Our data show that while former footballers had higher dementia rates, they had lower rates of death due to other major diseases. As such, whilst every effort must be made to identify the factors contributing to the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease to allow this risk to be reduced, there are also wider potential health benefits of playing football to be considered," Stewart added.

The university said the association between contact sport participation and neurodegenerative disease has been subject to debate in recent years.

Autopsy studies have identified a specific dementia pathology linked to exposure to brain injury, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in a high proportion of brains of former contact sports athletes, including former footballers in parallel studies led by Stewart.

However, until this latest study, it was not clear whether there was any evidence of an increase in neurodegenerative disease rate in former footballers.