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Research Explores Potential Link Between Rugby, Head Injury And Dementia

Researchers from Glasgow and Dublin have highlighted the case of an amateur rugby union player who developed a form of dementia called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The study, which suggests a need for further research into the links between head injury, rugby and the risk of CTE, is published on Friday 22 May in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine.

A team of doctors from Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, and St James’s Hospital and Beaumont Hospital, in Dublin, reviewed the case in light of recent studies linking contact sports – such as boxing and American football – and a higher risk of dementia. Some evidence suggests that players of some sports where there is a high risk of head injury may have an increased risk of dementia, but few studies have investigated the risk in rugby players.

The article outlines the case of a former amateur rugby union player who died at the age of 57, and who had played the sport from his early teens until the age of 50. The patient had experienced problems with memory, attention and organisation, which got worse over time, and later had difficulty with movement. His family also reported that he had experienced several head injuries over the course of his time playing rugby.

After his death, a post-mortem examination confirmed that the patient had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by the build-up of a protein called tau in the brain. Because CTE is commonly found in people with a history of head injury, the authors suggest that in future, people with dementia symptoms and a similar history of head injury should be assessed for CTE.

Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:

“Several studies have suggested a link between head injuries and an increased risk of dementia, but so far there is little research investigating the playing of rugby and dementia risk. While this interesting single case raises questions about potential links between repetitive head injury and a proposed form of dementia, CTE, we can’t know that playing rugby caused the disease in this person, or whether other factors might have played a part. Ultimately, long-term studies following large groups of people with appropriate controls will be needed to help understand whether repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries could raise the risk of dementia.

“The causes of dementia are complex, and it’s likely that the condition is caused by a mix of lifestyle and genetic factors which are not yet fully understood. Investment in research is vital if we are to find ways to prevent the diseases that cause dementia, and in the meantime there are steps people can take to lower their risk. Evidence suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and weight in check can all help to reduce the risk of dementia.”

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