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Brain injury research strengthens link between repetitive head impact and neurodegenerative disease

Emma Hall
24/10/2022
The news that 75 rugby league players with brain injuries will launch a legal action against the sport's ruling body - the Rugby Football League – coincides with standout new research from the University of Glasgow that former international rugby union players are 15 times more likely to suffer the devastating impact of motor neurone disease.

Currently, 185 rugby union players are suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) for failing to protect them from injury and that playing the game caused brain damage.

Leading rugby league player Bobbie Goulding, diagnosed last year with dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, described the health problems facing players as 'the biggest pandemic to hit the sport'.

The University of Glasgow research showed that former professionals were 267 per cent more likely to develop neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

The study compared the health outcomes of more than 400 former Scottish internationals, largely from the amateur era, and also found that they were twice as likely to develop dementia and three times more likely to suffer Parkinson’s Disease than the wider population.

But it was the findings regarding motor neurone disease (MND) that were identified as the 'standout high risk'. MND does not currently have a cure and affects around one in 400 people over the course of their lives, with around two in 10,000 people diagnosed each year.

Scotland’s Doddie Weir, South Africa’s Joost van der Westhuizen and former Gloucester player Ed Slater have all been diagnosed with MND. This study is the first to directly link the disease to the heightened risk of playing rugby.

It also echoes the findings of studies into other sports involving repeated head impacts - football and the NFL, where former players were found to be around four times more likely to suffer MND.

The lead scientist urged immediate measures to mitigate the risks, including banning contact training during the week during the season and even restricting training completely and reiterating that non-contact forms of the game increasingly become the norm.

As well as the MND findings, the former Scottish international rugby players were found to be twice as likely to develop dementia and three times more likely to suffer Parkinson’s Disease.

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