‘Concerning’ Links Between Former International Rugby Players and Neurodegeneration Revealed

Research conducted at University of Glasgow finds a group of former international rugby players are at around two and a half times higher risk of dementia, and over 15 times greater risk of motor neurone disease (MND), compared to the general population. Player position had no impact on dementia risk. The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, published the research.

Prof Willie Stewart, a leading research figure in this field, led the team, who compared health outcomes among 412 male, Scottish, former international rugby players and over 1,200 matched individuals from the general population.

They found that for former professional rugby players, the risk of neurodegenerative diseases is higher in a number of areas. They are over 2.67 times more likely to develop dementia, over 3 times to develop Parkinson’s, and over 15 times more likely to develop MND. The actual number of people who developed MND was not available.

Out of 421 rugby players, 121 died in the follow up period that lasted on average 30 years. Rugby players have less risk of dying up to age 70 than the age-matched controls. The age of death was also higher, at78.9 in rugby players vs 76.4 in controls.

Unlike the FIELD study into football, the research team did not find rugby players had less cardiovascular, and respiratory illnesses compared to controls from the population.

Our expert comment:
Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Rugby means so much to so many, it is a game that inspires, that brings people together from many cultures around the world, and one that is played by both men and women, at all levels up and down the country. But as with all contact sports, it has risks. While the benefits of physical exercise on brain and heart health are well known, multiple studies show links between traumatic brain injury and the development of dementia. Previous findings from this research team have also suggested that ex-professional footballers are at increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

“It’s concerning to see research now identify former male rugby players as being at increased risk of dementia, and at particularly high risk of the neurodegenerative condition motor neuron disease. The research team point towards head impacts during the careers of rugby players having a role in the development of the diseases, however quantifying the number of head injuries fell out of scope of this research study.

“While this is the biggest study of its kind into former male rugby players, there are still uncertainties over the exact size of the risk – for example, since motor neurone disease is a rare condition, there were no cases of MND in the aged-match controls and so much larger studies are needed to paint a clearer picture.

“Research that points the way to understanding and minimising the risks associated with head impacts, and how to balance these against the undoubted benefits of physical activity, and of playing rugby, is challenging but essential. At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we have outlined the most important priorities for researchers to complete the picture, including studying the impact of head injuries in women, at grass roots, and in the modern game, none of which were the focus of this research. As the leading dementia research charity, we’re already kick-starting further research into brain injury and the long-term risks of dementia with £500,000 of investment.

“Interest in the links between participating in sport and risk of dementia is at an all-time high. Researchers, funders, stakeholders, and custodians of the sport must seize this moment to deliver new, coordinated research to give every person the best possible chance of living a dementia-free life.”