Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is neurodegenerative brain disease common in American football players, boxers, and soccer players. The condition, which is linked with repeated traumatic brain injuries like concussions and blows to the head, is also a risk factor for dementia. This is reflected in research that has found boxers and soccer players are at a higher risk of developing dementia. A new study points to the risks involved in another contact sport: rugby.
Research recently published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica analyzed autopsy brain examination data from 31 former rugby union players who had donated their brains to science. They came from players in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The researchers found that about two-thirds of these former athletes had CTE present in their brains, and the length of their playing careers had a direct impact on their risk.
Willie Stewart, the study’s lead author from the University of Glasgow, says, “These results provide new evidence regarding the association between rugby union participation and CTE. Specifically, our data show risk is linked to length of rugby career, with every extra year of play increasing risk. Based on this it is imperative that the sport’s regulators reduce exposure to repeated head impacts in match play and in training to reduce risk of this otherwise preventable contact sport related neurodegenerative disease.”
The research involved both professional and amateur rugby players, with 23 of the study subjects playing exclusively as amateurs. The average career length was 18 years. All but one were men, and their average age at death was 60.
CTE was detected in 21 of the 31 former athletes, with 14 showing signs of low-stage CTE and seven with signs of high stage. The researchers say there didn’t seem to be any difference between those who had the disease and those who didn’t when it came to age at death, participation in other contact sports, history of drug or alcohol abuse, brain weight at death, or other brain conditions. The main difference was that prevalence went up the longer someone had played. The researchers found that for every additional year someone played rugby, their risk of CTE went up another 14%.
The team notes that there are some limitations of their study, including that they only had a convenience sample of brains that had been donated, but their findings reflect other research on CTE in athletes who had played other contact sports like soccer and American football.
It provides more evidence for the argument that more needs to be done to protect the brain health of contact sports athletes.
Dr. Ann McKee, study co-author and director of the Boston University CTE Center and UNITE brain bank, says, “CTE is a preventable disease; there is an urgent need to reduce not only the number of head impacts, but the strength of those impacts, in rugby as well as the other contact sports, in order to protect and prevent CTE in these players.”
CTE is a risk factor for dementia, and participation in other contact sports has been found to boost dementia risk. That includes a study showing that professional soccer players in Sweden were 62% more likely to develop dementia than non-soccer players, as well as a study showing that boxers were both more apt to get dementia and to get it sooner than their peers. You can read more on that here.