The Italian Almanac


Italian Science - March 2

Why soccer would be a risk for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a mystery. But a new study has found that Italian professional soccer players get the disease at a rate nearly six times as great as the general population.

The study, led by Dr. Adriano Chiņ, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Turin, was inspired by the work of an Italian prosecutor, Raffaele Guariniello, who was investigating the use of illegal drugs by soccer players. As part of his inquiry, Guariniello ordered a report on the causes of death among 24,000 men who played professional or semiprofessional soccer in Italy from 1960 to 1996. His finding - that Italian players died of ALS at a rate almost 12 times as great as normal - puzzled researchers, who decided to undertake a much more rigorous study.

ALS, often called Lou Gehrig's disease, is an incurable and invariably fatal degenerative disease of the nervous system. Although there have been many suggestions about the possible risks for the illness, including participation in sports, no clear-cut evidence has been found for any risk factors except age and sex. ALS tends to strike around age 60, and a vast majority of patients are men.

The new study, however, found not only an increased risk among these Italian athletes, but also that the risk was dose-related: the longer an athlete played, the greater his risk of contracting ALS. Moreover, the researchers found, the mean age at which the athletes developed the disease was 51, 10 years younger than that of the general population. The report appeared in the March issue of the journal Brain.

Chiņ said he was surprised by the results. "I can tell you that when I was asked to perform this study, I thought it would be a waste of time," he said. "I didn't believe I would find any significant result. Now I know I was wrong."

He said the study's methodology was sound. ."We are very confident that these results are real and are not due to a statistical effect," Chiņ said. .But he cautioned that the meaning of the findings was not clear, that ALS is a very rare disease and that the study's results in no way suggested that anyone should stop playing soccer.