New research suggests you can add rugby players to the list of professional athletes who face a significantly heightened risk of brain diseases following years of intense contact play.
“This latest work under our FIELD program of research demonstrates that risk of neurodegenerative disease is not isolated to former footballers [soccer players], but also a concern for former rugby players,” said study author Willie Stewart, an honorary professor at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland.
“As such, this study provides further insight into the association between contact sports and neurodegenerative disease risk. Of particular concern are the data on motor neuron disease risk among our rugby players, which is even higher than that for former professional footballers,” Stewart said in a university news release.
“This finding requires immediate research attention to explore the specific association between rugby and the devastating condition of motor neuron disease,” he added.
For the study, the researchers compared health outcomes among 412 former Scottish rugby players with 1,236 matched individuals from the general population. The study used national electronic health records on death certificates, hospitalization and dispensed prescribing for dementia in the rugby players. The study included players who were all 30 or older at the end of 2020.
The research team found that former international rugby players had an approximately 2.5 times higher risk of neurodegenerative disease than expected. Risk of disease varied by subtype: The former players had around double the risk of a dementia diagnosis and more than a 10-fold risk of a motor neuron disease diagnosis.
The study continues research into brain health outcomes among athletes who participate in contact sports. It is the largest to look in detail at neurodegenerative diseases in rugby players. Previous findings of the FIELD study looked at neurodegenerative disease risk in former professional soccer players.
Rugby players were less likely to die of respiratory disease than their comparisons. Deaths in former rugby players were lower than expected up to age 70, but there was no difference past that age, according to the report published Oct. 4 in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
“An important aspect of this work has been the ability to look across a range of health outcomes in former professional rugby players, allowing us to build a clear picture of health in this population,” said study first author Dr. Emma Russell, a researcher at the University of Glasgow.
“Our data show that, in contrast to our previous findings in former professional football [soccer] players, rugby players do not appear to benefit from a reduced risk of death due to cardiovascular disease or cancer, suggesting the possibility of sport-specific influences on lifelong health,” Russell said.
Stewart led parallel work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been discovered in a high proportion of the brains of former contact sport athletes, including former rugby players.
“Taking these new results in rugby, together with our pathology work and previous FIELD studies in football [soccer], the risk exposure of concern must remain repetitive head impacts and head injuries,” Stewart said. “As such, precautionary approaches should be adopted to reduce unnecessary head impacts and better manage head injuries across all contact sports.”
The Concussion Legacy Foundation has more on the degenerative brain disease CTE.
SOURCE: University of Glasgow, news release, Oct. 4, 2022