Football’s role in elevating the likelihood of Parkinson’s disease

Link between men's American football play and Parkinson's disease.


Football is a popular sport many enjoy, but recent research suggests that there might be a concerning link between playing football and an increased risk for Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement and can lead to various motor and non-motor symptoms.

Determining what might cause Parkinson’s disease (PD) is essential for detecting it early. In the 1920s, people noticed that boxers could get Parkinson’s disease and similar problems, which we call Parkinsonism. It also happens in other conditions. Tackle football players, who often get hit in the head, can have long-term brain issues like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But we don’t know much about whether playing tackle football relates to getting Parkinson’s disease.

A significant study looked into this. Researchers from the Boston University CTE Center used many data from people worried about having Parkinson’s disease. They found that those who played organized tackle football had a 61% higher chance of being diagnosed with Parkinsonism or Parkinson’s disease. It means there might be a link between playing football and getting Parkinson’s disease or similar issues.

In this study, the researchers looked at 1,875 people who played sports. Out of these, 729 were men who played football, mostly at the amateur level. Another 1,146 men played different sports and were used as a comparison group. These participants were part of a study called Fox Insight, which looks at people with and without Parkinson’s disease (PD) over time.

What they found was interesting. They saw a connection between playing football and a higher chance of having Parkinsonism or being diagnosed with PD. This link remained even after considering other things that might cause PD. They also saw that players with longer careers and who played at higher levels had a greater chance of being diagnosed with Parkinsonism or PD.

Football players who played in college or professionally had almost three times the chance of being diagnosed with PD than those who played in school or youth leagues. Surprisingly, the age when someone started playing football didn’t seem to affect the chances of getting Parkinsonism or PD.

Corresponding author Michael L.Alosco Ph.D., associate professor of neurology at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine said, “Playing tackle football could be a contributing risk factor to PD, particularly among people already at risk due to other factors (e.g., family history). However, the reasons for this relationship are not clear, and we also know that not everyone who plays tackle football will develop later-life neurological conditions, meaning many other risk factors are at play.”

The researchers did something significant in this study. They compared football players with another group of athletes. It makes the analysis more strong. Also, most of the players in the survey only played amateur tackle football, not professional. It is different from most other research that looked at professional athletes.

A person from the research team, Hannah Bruce, said that, “before, people focused on how American football affects a condition called CTE. But their study suggests it might also link to another brain condition called PD.”

The researchers know that their study has some limitations. They got data from people who already had PD, most of whom were white. Their findings might only apply to some. Also, people told them if they had PD, but they didn’t do tests in person to confirm it. So, they say their results are a starting point, and more research is needed.

Journal Reference:

  1. Hannah J. Bruce, MS1; Yorghos Tripodis et al., American Football Play and Parkinson Disease Among Men. JAMA Network Open. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.28644.