Soccer players are more likely to develop dementia over time, according to a study out of Sweden. The Lancet, an international weekly general medicine journal, published the findings from the Karolinska Institutet.

Researchers reviewed the health records of over 6,000 players in the Swedish top division from 1924 to 2019. That was compared against over 56,000 control medical records from people in Sweden. The study analyzed neurodegenerative disorders in the two groups.

In the end, 8.9% of the soccer players earned diagnoses with neurodegenerative disease. In the control group, the research team only found 6.2% of reporting data developed neurodegenerative disease. Also, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia were found to be more common in soccer players. The group went even further into findings to claim outfield players had a higher risk of neurodegenerative disease than goalkeepers. The study was sure to mention that of the 6,000 players studied, 510 were goalkeepers.

The fact that goalkeepers have a lesser risk to develop diseases like dementia than outfield soccer players demonstrates the inherent risks of heading the ball. Goalkeepers, while seldom expected to use their heads deliberately, did not suffer the same issues as positions like defenders, midfielders and forwards. Each of those three has a legitimate reason to use their heads based on the modern style of the game.

Soccer changing to avoid dementia in players

The information published in Sweden could contribute to the growing movement to eliminate the use of heads in soccer. That is, at least, at the youth level. In England, the FA looked into banning deliberate heading in children under the age of 12.

It is no different in the United States. In 2015, US Soccer banned deliberate heading for children under the age of 10. The Federation argued that this is when the player’s brain is still in its most important developmental phase. The constant knocks of heading a ball can stunt that growth. MLS understands the importance of correctly preventing head injuries, and previously requested temporary head injury substitutions.

Now, the information provided by the Swedish study could add to the argument that heading can damage the livelihood of athletes. If there is statistical evidence of dementia in soccer players, then there is arguably reason to limit heading.

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