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Study Raises New Concerns of Dementia from Playing Professional Football


FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2019, file image taken with a slow shutter speed a soccer player runs for the ball during the Euro 2020 group A qualifying soccer match in Prague, Czech Republic.
Study Raises New Concerns of Dementia from Playing Professional Football
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A study of former professional football players in Scotland finds that they were more likely to die from dementia than any other cause.

The results bring attention to the risks of head injuries from playing the sport Americans call soccer.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow reported the results in the New England Journal of Medicine. They compared the causes of death of 7,676 Scottish men who played professional soccer with 23,028 similar men from the general population. The men were all born between 1900 and 1976. Over 18 years of study, 1,180 players and 3,807 of the other group died.

The players had a lower risk of death from any cause until age 70. However, they had a 3.4 times higher rate of death from diseases affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Former players also were more likely to receive dementia medicines than people in the other group were.

Doctor Robert Stern is a scientist with Boston University. He studies sports-related brain injuries. He noted that the findings were about professional players. He said they might not apply to those who play for fun, college players or women.

Stern said parents “should focus on the…health benefits from exercise and participation in a sport that their children enjoy.” He added that parents should still consider the risks of heading – hitting the ball with one’s head. Stern’s comments were published with the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Greg Clark is chairman of the English Football Association. The organization helped support the study. Clark said, "The whole game must recognize that this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered.”

Tottenham's Harry Kane heads the ball during the English FA Cup semifinal soccer match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley stadium in London, Saturday, April 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Tottenham's Harry Kane heads the ball during the English FA Cup semifinal soccer match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley stadium in London, Saturday, April 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The English Football Association’s medical advisory group has not said it is necessary to change how the game is played. Officials across all levels of soccer can stop games for three minutes to fully examine head injuries. However, some experts believe that is not long enough. The English Football Association also is pushing soccer’s worldwide lawmaking body to permit substitutions for players who suffer concussions during gameplay.

The family of former England soccer player Jeff Astle is leading efforts to learn more about the long-term effects of head injuries in football. Astle died at age 59 in 2002. His death is believed to be related to repeatedly hitting heavy, leather balls with his head.

In 2017, a British study of the brains of a small number of retired players who developed dementia brought attention to the damage possibly caused by repeated strikes on the head.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Rob Harris reported this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

dementia – n. a term for diseases and conditions characterized by a loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking skills. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia.

focus – v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific

benefits – n. good or helpful results or effects

participation – n. the act of joining with others in doing something

concussion – n. an injury to the brain that is caused by something hitting the head very hard

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