Association of Field Position and Career Length With Risk of Neurodegenerative Disease in Male Former Professional Soccer Players

JAMA Neurol. 2021 Sep 1;78(9):1057-1063. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2021.2403.


Importance: Neurodegenerative disease mortality is higher among former professional soccer players than general population controls. However, the factors contributing to increased neurodegenerative disease mortality in this population remain uncertain.

Objective: To investigate the association of field position, professional career length, and playing era with risk of neurodegenerative disease among male former professional soccer players.

Design, setting, and participants: This cohort study used population-based health record linkage in Scotland to evaluate risk among 7676 male former professional soccer players born between January 1, 1900, and January 1, 1977, and 23 028 general population control individuals matched by year of birth, sex, and area socioeconomic status providing 1 812 722 person-years of follow-up. Scottish Morbidity Record and death certification data were available from January 1, 1981, to December 31, 2016, and prescribing data were available from January 1, 2009, to December 31, 2016. Database interrogation was performed on December 10, 2018, and data were analyzed between April 2020 and May 2021.

Exposures: Participation in men's soccer at a professional level.

Main outcomes and measures: Outcomes were obtained by individual-level record linkage to national electronic records of mental health and general hospital inpatient and day-case admissions as well as prescribing information and death certification. Risk of neurodegenerative disease was evaluated between former professional soccer players and matched general population control individuals.

Results: In this cohort study of 30 704 male individuals, 386 of 7676 former soccer players (5.0%) and 366 of 23 028 matched population control individuals (1.6%) were identified with a neurodegenerative disease diagnosis (hazard ratio [HR], 3.66; 95% CI, 2.88-4.65; P < .001). Compared with the risk among general population control individuals, risk of neurodegenerative disease was highest for defenders (HR, 4.98; 95% CI, 3.18-7.79; P < .001) and lowest for goalkeepers (HR, 1.83; 95% CI, 0.93-3.60; P = .08). Regarding career length, risk was highest among former soccer players with professional career lengths longer than 15 years (HR, 5.20; 95% CI, 3.17-8.51; P < .001). Regarding playing era, risk remained similar for all players born between 1910 and 1969.

Conclusions and relevance: The differences in risk of neurodegenerative disease observed in this cohort study imply increased risk with exposure to factors more often associated with nongoalkeeper positions, with no evidence this association has changed over the era studied. While investigations to confirm specific factors contributing to increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among professional soccer players are required, strategies directed toward reducing head impact exposure may be advisable in the meantime.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Scotland
  • Soccer*
  • Time Factors