MND Australia

Professional soccer players: are they more at risk of developing MND?

Lou Gehrig, the famous American baseball player and star with the New York Yankees, died from MND in 1941, two weeks short of his thirty-eighth birthday.1

Just last September the former professional soccer player, captain and fan favourite Fernando Ricksen of the Rangers Football Club in Scotland, also died from MND. Ricksen had been battling the disease since 2013.

Here in Australia, former Australian Football League player and coach, Neale Daniher, lives with MND. Scott Gale, the famous Balmain Tigers rugby team halfback, also suffered with MND, and he died at age 39 in 2004. 

Research tells us that there is no known cause of MND. But with such well known former sports professionals suffering from the disease, and evidence suggesting repetitive head injuries from contact sports could increase the risk of neurodegenerative issues like MND, it’s hard not to worry.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, about the health of former professional soccer players may hold some of the answers.2 And while the study suggests contact sports are an important area of focus for identifying the risk of neurodegenerative disease, much remains unknown. The risk needs to be better understood.

At this stage, there is insufficient evidence to suggest people should stop playing contact sports due to the risk of neurodegenerative disease. It is likely the risk lies with the excessive levels of repetitive head trauma that professional soccer players experience, which would not be the case with non-professionals.

Much more targeted research is needed to better identify the risk of developing neurodegenerative disease from injuries in contact sports – including what might help stop MND.

Why research former professional soccer players and neurodegenerative disease?

Contact sports like soccer, Australian Rules Football, baseball and rugby can be exhilarating and exciting games, with many health benefits. The sports are important for exercise, overall wellbeing and the prevention of diabetes and other chronic diseases.

But contact sports are also known for the physical injuries experienced by their players. Common injuries include hamstring strains, knee damage and twisted ankles, and they occur at professional, amateur and other levels of play.3,4 Repetitive head injuries resulting in concussion and other issues are also a major problem.5 In some cases, regularly occurring head injuries from playing sport can lead to cognitive problems, and an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease later in life.6

Elite athletes like Fernando Ricksen and Neal Daniher, who played contact sports, have been diagnosed with MND, while others have developed disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The rate and experience of neurodegenerative disease suffered by elite athletes is not well understood, however.2 Also, more broadly, the neurocognitive consequences of participating in contact sports remains unknown.

Given sports like soccer are popular and played by many people across the world, there is much potential to learn about managing and preventing injuries from former professional soccer players. Experiences in professional sports can help us to more clearly articulate the risk of neurodegenerative disease from repetitive head injuries.

And in Scotland, there is an important opportunity for research to contribute valuable insights. The results from the neurodegenerative study draw on the country’s relatively long history of people playing in professional soccer competitions.

Study snapshot: major research methods and findings

Scientists in the study looked back at the health records of 7,676 former Scottish professional soccer players, all male, and compared them with a group of 23,028 from the general population.2 Only people born before January 1, 1977, were included in the study.

The health records examined were death certificates containing information about causes of death, and prescription data on medications dispensed for the treatment of dementia.

In summarising the researchers, the analysis of health records found that:

“mortality from neurodegenerative disease was higher and mortality from other common diseases lower among former Scottish professional soccer players than among matched controls”; and,

“prescriptions of dementia-related medications were more common among former professional soccer players than among controls from the Scottish population”.

MND was one of various neurodegenerative diseases identified in the study. However, the estimated risk of death with “neurodegenerative disease listed as the primary or a contributory cause was highest for those with Alzheimer’s disease and lowest for those with Parkinson’s disease”.

Keep focusing on the health benefits of soccer and other contact sports

The results of the study are important. The results add to an established body of evidence that shows repetitive head injuries in some contact sports could increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease and dementia.

According to the researchers, the results now need to be confirmed in future studies.

It’s okay to keep playing contact sports, however. The study’s results, which are concerned only with the experiences of men who are former professional soccer players, cannot be generalized to others playing soccer recreationally or at other levels. The results cannot be applied to other sports, either.

Researchers commenting on the study have noted that players shouldn’t be scared7 of developing neurological disorders as they age, including MND. Instead, it’s more important to focus on the many physical and social benefits from exercise and participation in contact sports.

Yet the research findings also suggest that players should be mindful of their health during contact sports. Head injuries can potentially have major consequences. More research is necessary into the potential consequences from head injuries in contact sports – in the short and long term, and for how it might help us better understand neurological disease, and the causes of MND.

Be more than a good sport – raise money for MND through your local club

One of the most heartening things about some of our beloved sports heroes living with MND is their commitment to helping others suffering from the disease. By setting up charities to raise money for MND research, Fernando Ricksen, Neale Daniher and others help support the search for effective treatments, and hopefully, a cure.

The thing is you don’t need to be an elite soccer or football player to help stop MND. There are great ways to work with local sporting clubs in your community to not only enjoy all their health and social benefits, but raise money to help tackle the cruelty of MND. Over the years, many people from local sporting clubs across Australia have generously donated, and helped make a difference to funding research and care for MND.