Rugby players are up to 15 times more likely to get deadly neurological diseases, a landmark study has revealed.
A major study of former Scottish international rugby union players found they were more than twice as likely to get dementia, and had a 15-fold increased risk of motor neurone disease.
The retired sportsmen were also roughly three times more likely to get Parkinson’s, according to the largest ever analysis of rugby players and brain health.
Researchers probing the issue — which has been dubbed ‘sport’s silent scandal’ — believe repeated knocks to the head are likely to blame, rather than brain injuries such as concussion.
More research is urgently needed, the team said.
They fear the demands of the modern game could mean the problem is significantly worse than these initial findings show.
They have urged rugby chiefs to review the number of games per season and called for an immediate ban on contact training.
It comes after Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson — who was diagnosed with early onset dementia — admitted his illustrious career ‘wasn’t worth it’ because he’d ‘rather not be such a burden on his family’.
It comes after Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson (pictured) — who was diagnosed with early onset dementia — admitted his illustrious career ‘wasn’t worth it’ because he’d ‘rather not be such a burden on his family’
Professor Willie Stewart, the Glasgow University neuropathologist who led the study, said ‘dramatic changes’ were needed to ensure player safety
The Mail on Sunday has been fighting for strict concussion protocols in sport since 2013
The former England hooker, 44, revealed he can’t remember ‘precious memories’ like winning the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 in a trailer for his new BBC Two documentary, Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me, which airs tonight.
He is one of nearly 200 former players diagnosed with a brain disease suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union.
Thompson, who played for England between 2002 and 2011, was told his dementia was likely caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the same disease that killed former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle.
Former NFL star Aaron Hernandez had CTE when he killed himself in April at the age of 27 while serving a life sentence for murder.
Professor Willie Stewart, the Glasgow University neuropathologist who led the study, said ‘dramatic changes’ were needed to ensure player safety.
‘The way the game has changed professionally — with much more training, much more game exposure, the head injury rate’s gone up, the head impact rate’s gone up — I am genuinely really concerned about what’s happening in the modern game,’ he said.
‘I think rugby has talked a lot and is doing a lot about head injury management and talking about know whether it can reduce impact exposure during the week.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow’s brain injury group analysed the medical records of 412 Scottish former international male rugby players from the age of 30 onwards, for an average of 32 years. None of them were identified
The 34-year-old Gloucester forward who retired from professional rugby after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease
Gloucester forward Ed Slater feared the worst when his stopped being able to grip things properly
Gloucester forward Ed Slater feared the worst when his stopped being able to grip things properly.
His arm had gradually been getting weaker and months of tests confirmed in July the news that he had been dreading.
The 34-year-old former Leicester captain was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and retired from rugby with immediate effect.
The devastating condition is caused by the death of the nerves that carry messages from the brain to people’s muscles and affects their ability to move, talk and breathe.
He had close friends who had lost a family member to the degenerative condition and was able to get advice and mentally prepare as best he could.
Tragically, Mr Slater, who has three young children, has already started to record his voice in anticipation of the condition affecting his speech.
In August, he cycled 350 miles to raise awareness of MND and more than £300,000 in funds.
Speaking to Gloucester fans at the finish line in the club’s Kingsholm Stadium, he said: ‘I’m just a normal bloke from Milton Keynes who happened to play a bit of rugby and the way you have supported me since my diagnosis means so much.
‘After receiving the diagnosis, I was in an extraordinarily dark place and Gloucester have lifted me out of that. I have got to thank the club.’
Rugby legends Doddie Weir, 52, and Rob Burrow, 40, have also been diagnosed with the disease.
How can brain injuries in sports lead to dementia?
Footballers suffer repeated blows to their head, mainly through heading leather footballs and colliding with other players.
Leading scientists have found such injuries can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a crippling condition which can cause dementia.
Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002, aged 59, from CTE. He was left unable to recognise his own children.
An inquest ruled that Astle’s CTE was caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.
Three of the nine surviving members of England’s 1966 winning World Cup team have Alzheimer’s – Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson.
Stiles’ son two years ago criticised the FA for failing to properly investigate a link between the sport and degenerative brain disease.
A landmark study of 14 retired footballers by University College London experts in 2017 found four had a condition CTE.
The link between head trauma and CTE is widely established in boxing, rugby and American football, where such head injuries are common.
Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez had CTE when he killed himself in April at the age of 27 while serving a life sentence for murder.
‘I think those conversations have been going on a while and the pace of progress is pretty slow.
‘This should be a stimulus to them to really pick up the heels and start making pretty dramatic changes as quickly as possible to try and reduce risk.
‘Instead of talking about extending seasons and then adjusting competitions and global seasons, they should maybe talk about restricting it as much as possible.’
Traumatic brain injury is a major risk factor for neurodegenerative disease and is thought to account for 3 per cent of all dementia cases.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow’s brain injury group analysed the medical records of 412 Scottish former international male rugby players from the age of 30 onwards, for an average of 32 years. None of them were identified.
These were compared to 1,236 members of the general population, of the same age.
During the study 121 (29 per cent) of the former rugby players and 381 (31 per cent) of the comparison group died, with ex-players on average living slightly longer to 79, compared to 76.
Although rugby players had a higher risk of death overall from neurodegenerative disease, they were less likely to die of respiratory disease.
But the chance of being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease was more than twice as high among the former rugby players with 11.5 per cent (47) diagnosed in that time compared to 5.5 per cent (67) of the general population.
The position they played was found to have no bearing on the risk, according to the findings published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.
The results are the latest in ongoing research into the brain health of former contact sports athletes, funded by the Football Association.
In 2019, a study of professional footballers found they were three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than anyone else, prompting changes to heading the ball in children’s training sessions.
Experts said further research is needed involving international and female rugby players to determine the scale of the issue but stressed that rugby still carried many health benefits.
Dr Brian Dickie, director of research development at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said the research ‘raises more questions than answers’.
He said the vast majority of cases of MND involve a complex mix of genetic and environmental risk factors, so the level of genetic risk may be different in high performance athletes compared with the general population.
He added: ‘What is clear is that this research need to be extended into much larger populations, which will require close collaboration between researchers and rugby representative bodies across multiple countries.’
WHAT IS DEMENTIA? THE KILLER DISEASE THAT ROBS SUFFERERS OF THEIR MEMORIES
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 900,000 people living with dementia in the UK today. This is projected to rise to 1.6million by 2040.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting between 50 and 75 per cent of those diagnosed.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Alzheimer’s Society