Football: A study recently published in the scientific journal JAMA Neurology addresses an area that has been little studied: the risk of neurodegenerative diseases in former professional football players. Quoting a phrase from Pelé, scientists at the University of Glasgow, Scotland researched “the ugly side of the beautiful game”, and concluded that the prevalence of risk depends on the athlete’s position on the field.
In this sense, defenders, who are possibly the players who head the ball the most, have a five times greater risk of developing dementia than attackers and goalkeepers. In addition, the study states that, regardless of their position on the field, professional players who have been active for more than 15 years are at a higher risk of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s than the general population.
Although this increased risk of late neurodegenerative diseases and dementia has already been the object of research in professional athletes with exposure to repetitive impacts on the head, as is the case of former boxers and football players, this is the first time that it has been studied in depth the neurological consequences of a sport with (supposedly) low exposure of the head to trauma.
Headbutts or headbutts?
According to the Glasgow study, when assessing the risk of head trauma, one must first consider that football is the most popular sport in the world, with 270 million players playing. Thus, heading the ball (what we call heading) can often turn into an involuntary headbutt on another player, on the ground or even on the crossbar, with serious consequences.
Citing a meeting held in 2017 on head injuries in football, the researchers said that the frequency of headers in football increases when moving from the youth level to the professional level. According to subject matter experts, “both overall exposure to head butts and the force of impact generated by them were considered relatively low, but with considerable individual variability,” says the survey.