Background: Former participants in sports characterised by low intensity repetitive head impact appear to have elevated rates of later dementia, but links with other psychological health outcomes such as depression and suicide are uncertain. We quantified the occurrence of these endpoints in former contact sports athletes against general population controls using new data from a cohort study and a meta-analysis.
Methods: The cohort study comprised 2004 retired male athletes, who had competed internationally as amateurs for Finland across a range of sports, and 1385 general population controls. All study members were linked to mortality and hospitalisation registries. In the PROSPERO-registered systematic review (CRD42022352780), we searched PubMed and Embase to October 31 2022 for cohort studies that reported standard estimates of association and precision. Study-specific estimates were aggregated in a random-effect meta-analysis. The Newcastle-Ottawa Scale was used to appraise the quality of each study.
Findings: In survival analyses of the Finnish cohort data, former boxers (depression: hazard ratio 1.43 [95% CI 0.73, 2.78]; suicide: 1.75 [0.64, 4.38]), Olympic-style wrestlers (depression: 0.94 [0.44, 2.00]; suicide: 1.60 [0.64, 3.99]), and soccer players (depression: 0.62 [0.26, 1.48]; suicide: 0.50 [0.11, 2.16]) did not have statistically higher rates of major depressive disorder or suicide at follow-up relative to controls. In the systematic review, 7 cohort studies met inclusion criteria. After aggregating results with the Finnish cohort, retired soccer players appeared to have a lower risk of depression (summary risk ratio: 0.71 [0.54, 0.93]) relative to general population controls, while the rate of suicide was statistically the same across groups (0.70 [0.40, 1.23]). Past participation in American football seemed to be associated with some protection against suicide (0.58 [0.43, 0.80]) but there were insufficient studies of depression in this sport to facilitate aggregation. The aggregation of results from the soccer and American football studies showed directionally consistent relationships and there was no indication of inter-study heterogeneity (I2 = 0%).
Interpretation: Based on a small cluster of studies exclusively comprising men, retired soccer players had a lower rate of later depression and former American football players had a lower risk of suicide relative to comparator groups. Whether these findings are generalisable to women requires testing.