Playing football for many years may be associated with an increased risk of motor neuron disease.
An increased risk of motor neuron disease (MND) is associated with repeated head injuries with concussion, playing sports in general and playing football for years, recently published A New Zealand study found.
Childhood physical abuse may also play a role – a new finding.
The study showed “significantly increased risk of MND” as a result of these activities and events, according to the journal.
Football (soccer) has been associated with MND for a few years, and it’s unclear what’s going on – a statement that applies to many aspects of MND.
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A 2005 Italian study comparing professional soccer players to the general population found five cases of ALS when 0.77 were expected. A 2020 update of this study found 34 cases of ALS when 17.8 were expected, a double difference. Similar findings have been made among Scottish professional footballers.
ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is the most common disease among the group of closely related disorders that make up MND. All affect motor neurons in the brain – the nerve cells that control the voluntary movement of muscles. The disorders are progressive and terminal.
In New Zealand, MND is “rare, but by no means uncommon”, according to Motor neuron disease New Zealand, a charity active in this space.
The New Zealand researchers, led by Grace Xia Chen of the Research Center for Hauora and Health at Massey University of Wellington, recruited 321 MND cases and 605 controls. All were asked about their participation in almost 30 different sports – rugby, football, tennis, volleyball, table tennis, golf, surfing, etc.
“In this study, participation in sports throughout childhood and adulthood was associated with an increased risk of MND, which is consistent with several previous studies,” Chen and colleagues wrote in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica.
Jo Cherry talks about living knowing she has the genetic mutation for Motor Neurone Disease, the disease that killed her father. (First published October 2020)
The increased football-related risk became statistically significant when participants reported playing football for more than 12 years. For this group, the risk of MND was twice that of controls, Chen and colleagues reported.
The analyzes were adjusted for head injuries with concussion, and the authors questioned whether “sub-concussive impacts to the head” were the issue. Footballers use their head to deflect the ball. Further study was warranted.
The researchers also asked about 14 emotional traumas — life-threatening illnesses or accidents, miscarriages, sexual assault, childhood beatings, and more.
The trauma that stood out was “several episodes of physical abuse” among the boys.
If the abuse lasted five to eight years, the risk was twice as high. Violence lasting more than eight years was associated with a triple risk.
“We are not aware of any other studies that have assessed the association between traumatic life events and MND,” the New Zealand authors reported.
Emotional trauma has also been proposed as risk factors for other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
“The observed associations are complex and interconnected because sports and emotional trauma can also involve physical trauma, including head injuries,” the study concluded.
New Zealand researchers found that head injury with concussion was associated with MND. It was no surprise. Recent meta-analyses – which combine the results of multiple scientific studies – have found this link.
MND is thought to “involve complex interactions of environmental, lifestyle, and genetic factors, but few conclusive risk factors have been established,” Chen and colleagues wrote.