Former professional footballers at lower risk of mental health disorders – study

Former professional football players have a lower risk of admission to hospital for the most common mental health disorders than the general population, new research suggests.

Latest findings from the Football’s Influence on Lifelong health and Dementia risk (Field) study found that they were approximately half as likely to be admitted for anxiety and stress-related disorders, depressive disorder, alcohol use disorders, drug use disorders, and bipolar and affective mood disorders, and were at no greater risk of suicide.

It follows Field research last year which found that former professional footballers were approximately three-and-a-half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

The latest research looked at mental health outcomes in more than 7,500 former professional footballers and around 23,000 members of the general population, and is published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

Consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, honorary clinical associate professor at the University of Glasgow, who led the study, said: “This is the first and largest study to date to investigate the association between elite-level contact sport and risk of common mental health disorders after retirement in this way.

“Our findings show that, despite former professional footballers having higher death from neurodegenerative disease, they are in fact approximately half as likely to be admitted to hospital with common mental health disorders.

“This is important because, in recent decades, there have been suggestions that common mental health disorders and suicide are features of neurodegenerative disease in contact sports athletes. The results from Field would suggest this is not the case after all.”

Experts said that recent concerns over the risk of mental health disorder and suicide in former athletes have been driven, in part, by post-mortem studies reporting a specific degenerative brain pathology linked to exposure to brain injury.

Known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), this pathology has been described in a high proportion of former contact sports athletes, including former footballers, and has been linked to psychiatric presentations including depression and suicidality.

However, despite former professional footballers in the Field study having high rates of dementia, they were at lower risk of hospital admission for the most common mental health disorders, when compared with matched counterparts in the general population.

Further analysis also showed no significant difference in deaths due to suicide between footballers and their matched population controls.

Those included in the study were all born before January 1 1977.

All the former football players were male and two-thirds of them were born after 1952.

The research is published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

The Field study is currently funded by the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to the end of February 2021.

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