Scientists have heightened calls for sporting codes to minimise head impacts and injuries after another study connected contact sport participation to a higher chance of developing a degenerative brain disorder.
The research published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry found risk of neurodegenerative disorder among Scotland’s former international rugby union players was more than double that of the wider population.
Risk varied based on the type of disorder: the chance of dementia was twice as high as among the general public. Motor neurone disease was 15 times higher.
The research group from Glasgow University and Queen Elizabeth University Hospital previously found an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease among Scottish association football (soccer) players, and a greater likelihood of death from dementia.
It adds to an increasing body of international research into the effect of high-contact sports—particularly football codes—on the brain.
Earlier this year, research from La Trobe University and Sydney University found over 95% of athletes whose brains were donated to the Australian Sports Brain Bank had signs of neurodegeneration.
Most of these players had participated in football codes.
Bank of brain injury knowledge continues to expand
Among the findings, the researchers working under the oversight of senior author William Stewart found consistencies with studies of former National (American) Football League and professional soccer players.
Given a largely amateur playing contingent represents Scotland internationally, the researchers suggest their findings are the “first demonstration that high neurodegenerative disease risk is not a phenomenon exclusive to professional athletes.”
Dr Helen Murray from the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research, which established New Zealand’s own sports brain bank, says the study extends the knowledge of which brain disorders may eventuate from repeated brain injury.
“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the most widely known brain pathology linked repetitive head injury in sport,” Murray says.
“However, this study reinforces the idea that head injury risk is not limited to CTE, and former contact-sport athletes should be monitored for all types of dementia. Every type of dementia is devastating.”
Time to address head contact in sport: experts
A study published in July by researchers from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and the UK supported a connection between repeated head injuries and CTE.
Alan Pearce, an associate professor in exercise neuroscience from La Trobe University who contributed to the analysis of brains donated to Australia’s sports brain bank, said the findings support sports codes taking more action to minimise the risk of brain damage in participants.
“We need a concerted effort to change how we approach these sports in not only concussion management but also in reducing exposure to adult athletes,” Pearce says.
“That’s as well as modifying contact sports for junior players – children and young adolescents – up to the age of 14 years.”
The most recent data from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare found concussions account for most sports-related head injuries among people under the age of 65.
The proportion of these head injuries during sports participation that led to hospitalisation was highest among children aged 15-19 (8.98% of hospitalisation causes).
After equestrian sports, Australian rules football (9.4%), both-code rugby (8.33%) and cycling (7.44%) had the highest proportion of head injuries among injury-related hospital admissions.
Dr Rowena Mobbs, a neurologist and director of the Australian CTE Biobank at Macquarie University, says Australia is “behind in respect to our own football codes’” research and action to address concussion in sport.
This, she says, could have impacts on participation among young people.
“Without a focussed, careful approach of transition to safer concussion sport, there is a risk that participation will dive, raising potential cardiovascular risk in children,” Mobbs says.
“Regardless of the eventual incidence and prevalence of CTE in the rugby playing population from ongoing studies, the need to proactively restrict training and match-related head injury is clear.
“Not only will this implicate changes to the age of commencement of contact but potential restrictions on the duration of an individual’s career, or 2-5 yearly neurological monitoring of players to detect the clinical features of CTE.
“Sporting leadership should act now for the safety of the community and longevity of their own sports or face the consequences.”
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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