Dear Doctors: What can you tell me about new research that found football players get Lou Gehrig’s disease? My son is going to join his high school team and I’m worried about what this might mean for his future health.
Dear Reader: You are referring to the results of a study published last year in one of the journals of the American Medical Association. The research was conducted by scientists who focused on the long-term consequences of repetitive brain injury. The study looked at nearly 20,000 professional soccer players who had played at least one game between 1960 and 2019. The data showed that professional soccer players were four times more likely than the general population to develop and die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. , a neurodegenerative disease.
Because the study covers 59 years, the researchers were also able to establish a strong link between the length of a player’s football career and their risk of developing ALS. Specifically, the longer a person played football, the greater their likelihood of developing ALS. Players who developed ALS played more than 50% longer than those who did not.
ALS is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the baseball player who was diagnosed with it. This is called a progressive neurodegenerative disease. This type of disease occurs when something causes nerve cells in the brain or peripheral nervous system to lose their ability to function. A progressive disease is one that gets worse over time.
In ALS, the nerve cells that allow us to control our muscles begin to deteriorate and eventually die. When this happens, individuals lose control of their voluntary movements. They gradually become unable to walk, move, eat, speak and even breathe. Currently, there is no cure for ALS.
As well as linking the length of a professional football player‘s career to an increased risk of developing ALS, the study reinforces the idea that concussion is not the only, or even the main, danger to the players. The emphasis is on so-called sub-concussive blows. These are blows to the head that, although they don’t cause the nausea, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and confusion of a concussion, still have a detrimental effect on the brain. . And this effect appears to be cumulative. The repeated concussive blows suffered by professional football players over a long career are now believed to play a significant role in players’ risk of developing, sometimes decades later, a neurodegenerative disease.
The study authors also talked about the broader implications of these findings. This includes the risk posed by exposure to subconcussive blows in the course of one’s occupation, as well as in other highly physical sports such as football and ice hockey.
Ask Doctors is authored by Elizabeth Ko, internist and primary care physician at UCLA Health and Dr. Eve Glazier, MBA, internist and assistant professor of internal medicine at UCLA Health.