Swedish study finds footballers more likely to get dementia

Top level Swedish football players -- except for goalkeepers -- were significantly more likely to develop dementia than the general public over the last century, according to a large Swedish study published on Friday.

Swedish study finds footballers more likely to get dementia
The Brazilian goalkeeper Gylmar dos Santos Neves faces the Swedish forward Kurt Hamrin during the 1958 World Cup final in Stockholm. Photo: SvD/Wikimedia Commons

Experts said the study added to “convincing evidence” linking the world’s most popular sport to a higher risk of degenerative brain disorders, and comes as head injury controversies rumble throughout other codes such as rugby and the NFL.

While traumatic brain injuries like concussions may be less common in football than those sports, the repeated heading of the ball by footballers has previously been associated with dementia.

The new study, published in The Lancet Public Health journal, analysed the medical records of more than 6,000 male footballers in Sweden’s top division from 1924 to 2019.

The researchers compared their rates of a range of degenerative brain disorders to 56,000 similarly aged Swedish men. The footballers were 1.5 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias than the control group, the study suggested.

An exception was goalkeepers, who rarely need to head the ball and did not show any increased likelihood of degenerative brain disorders.

“This finding lends support to the hypothesis that heading the ball might explain this association,” the study’s lead author Peter Ueda of Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet told AFP.

Ueda said it was the largest research conducted on the subject since a 2019 Scottish study which suggested that footballers were 3.5 times more likely than to get degenerative brain disorders.

‘Protect people’s heads’

The Swedish study also found that footballers lived slightly longer than similarly aged men, which Ueda said could be related to the higher levels of exercise and socioeconomic status that come with being an elite footballer.

The study found no increased risk of motor neuron diseases such as ALS among the footballers, and a even slightly lower risk for Parkinson’s disease.

Ueda cautioned that the observational study was not able to show that playing football directly caused the dementia, and its findings could not be extended to female, amateur or youth football.

Because there is so much time between people playing football and the development of these brain disorders, many of the players covered by the study were active during the mid-20th century.

This means that better equipment, knowledge and training could have since made the game safer for modern professional players, Ueda said.

“But you can also speculate that contemporary players today are exposed to intense football from a very young age, so maybe the risk would even be higher among them,” he added.

Gill Livingston, professor in psychiatry of older people at University College London, said the “high-quality paper” added to “convincing evidence” that footballers whose heads come in contact with the ball were at a higher risk of dementia.

“We need to act to protect people’s heads and brains and keep playing sport,” said Livingston, who was not involved in the research.

Research into head injuries in sport, and post-career side-effects, has recently exploded, notably in rugby union and rugby league.

Last year research indicated former international rugby players are 15 times more likely to develop motor neurone disease. A group of former rugby union players is suing various governing bodies for allegedly failing to protect them from permanent injury.

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Sweden’s football coach apologises after post-match row on live television

The Swedish national football team won a Euros qualifying match on Monday night. However, that's been completely overshadowed by national team trainer Janne Andersson storming out of a post-match interview in a huff. Here's the lowdown.

Sweden's football coach apologises after post-match row on live television

Why is everyone talking about Janne Andersson today?

Janne, the trainer of the Swedish national football team, stormed out of a post-match interview in a huff after Sweden’s 5-0 win against Azerbaijan in the Euro 2024 qualifiers on Monday. The storm-out was due to a spat with Bojan Djordjic, a member of Viaplay’s expert panel and a former professional footballer for clubs such as Manchester United and Stockholm club AIK.

Wait, so Sweden won the match? Why was Andersson angry?

Yes. Sweden won against Azerbaijan, a win they needed after losing 3-0 against Belgium in their first qualifying match, leaving them at the bottom of their qualifying group with no points. 

The spat was due to a relatively innocuous question by Djordjic, who asked why forward Jesper Karlsson had only been given eight minutes of playing time in the last two matches.

Karlsson, who Djordjic described as being “in the best shape of his life” came onto the pitch in the 82nd minute, scoring an impressive goal with a free kick just six minutes later, so Djordjic’s question was perhaps a valid one which many fans wanted to hear the answer to.

That sounds like a pretty normal question to ask in a post-match interview, what was the issue?

Well, yes. It’s common for pundits to discuss the match, the players and the team’s strategy, even coming with criticism following a positive result.

Andersson however reacted defensively, repeatedly asking who should have been off in Karlsson’s place if he were to play.

Djordjic repeated the question, asking why the team didn’t play in another formation, for example, or why Andersson didn’t give Karlsson more time on pitch, after which Andersson waved him away, raising his voice and saying “we win 5-0 and you’re standing here whinging!”

Andersson then appeared to take offence at the whole idea of an interview with pundits who had been commentating on the match just minutes before, complaining that there were four people standing in front of him confronting him about a match which his team had won.

That doesn’t sound very Swedish!

Well, not really, no.

Andersson clearly hadn’t read The Local’s guide on how to argue like a Swede, which tells you not to raise your voice and not to interrupt, among other things.

Swedes have a reputation for being passive-aggressive and conflict averse, preferring to discuss issues in a calm and restrained manner rather than raising their voices and showing anger or emotion as Andersson did.

Andersson was visibly upset, and struggling to stay calm during the interview, appearing genuinely close to tears at some points.

National team captain Janne Andersson at a press conference on Tuesday. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Swedes were describing the interview as a totalhaveri (roughly: a trainwreck), with some demanding that Andersson should resign.

He’s also been criticised as his response was not really what you’d expect from the leader of the national team, who many argued should be able to keep his cool and respond to this kind of question in a professional manner, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with it.

He said later on that there were “a lot of feelings in the air” following the match, and that his main irritation was due to the fact that the four interviewers hadn’t been more positive after the 5-0 win.

I’ve seen people saying Andersson was racist in the interview, is that true?

It depends who you ask. Here’s why people are saying he was racist, and you can decide for yourself.

Djordjic asked why Andersson was so defensive, adding that as head of Sweden’s national team, he “represents ten million people”.

Andersson replied by saying “who do you represent?”

“Sweden, of course. Why shouldn’t I?” Djordjic, who is Swedish but was born in Serbia, replied.

“Oh, shit,” Andersson replied, before Djordjic asked “who else should I represent? What other country? Serbia, is that what you wanted to say?”

What happened next?

In a press conference after the interview, Andersson – clearly still angry – was asked whether he was suggesting that Djordjic didn’t represent Sweden. 

He denied this was what he meant, saying “never in hell”.

“I don’t know what I said, don’t talk about Serbia and all that crap. I can’t be doing with that crap. I was talking to him as a representative of the media. Don’t bring anything else into this, I can’t be doing with it.”

“I can apologise if I said something bad. If I said something bad I can own up to it. Don’t bring stuff like that in, it makes me angry.”

Djordjic, on the other hand, demanded an apology from Andersson and the national team following his comments.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Andersson vehemently denied he had referred to Djordjic’s background and rather that he was asking whether Djordjic was speaking “as a player, leader or expert”. He added that he had tried unsuccessfully to reach Djordjic and speak to him in person.

Did anyone try to break up the argument?

In perhaps the most Swedish moment in the entire interview, presenter Niklas Jihde – who had remained silent until that point along with fellow pundits Sebastian Larsson and Fredrik Ljungberg – tried (unsuccessfully) to diffuse the conflict and get the two to take a time out, eventually managing to change the topic and ask Andersson what he was most pleased about.

Andersson said he was “not pleased with anything,” again complaining that the four pundits were ganging up on him before storming out.