Investigating Sports Related Dementia
Scientific studies have allowed for the conjecture that head collisions frequent in sports like football and rugby may lead to the development of dementia in the players at a later stage, as the result of a lengthy cognitive decline after years of sustaining seemingly minor head injuries and concussions. The association of sports with neurological diseases is more than reasonable; the first time I watched rugby, I thought how fantastic it was and what an impact some of the manoeuvres must have on the players’ health.
In a recent British study, a post-mortem of six former football players with history of dementia concluded that all had traces of CTE (a progressive degenerative disease known in athletes), furthermore all had Alzheimer’s and some displayed traces of other neurological problems like vascular dementia (caused by an interruption in the blood supply to the brain). The study explicitly stated: ‘Brain structural and cognitive changes have been reported in footballers exposed to repetitive subconcussive head impacts’, and for that reason the research is important to public health interest.
According to the same study, on average a professional footballer can head the ball over 2,000 times in their career and 6-12 per game, but we must also take into account not just heading but head-to-player collisions which can have serious consequences.
Examples of players with links to cognitive decline in past media help to give more weight to the theory. Interest in the potential relationship was triggered by the death of West Bromwich Albion’s Jeff Astle (59), which was preceded by a five year cognitive decline. Furthermore four out of the eight surviving players in the winning team of the 1966 England’s World Cup were reported to have dementia. The concern is also apparent in American football; Chicago Cubs’ Dave Duerson made the request for his brain to be handed over to neurologists after his death, who found that he did have advanced CTE. The same research facility was founded by athletes and Boston University scientists wanting to investigate the long-term effects of sports related concussions.
We can hope that such cases will draw more sympathy to the problem and impose pressure on the Professional Footballers’ Association for more research as at present insufficient evidence for the link only makes it conjectural. The benefits of exercise against dementia are stated, but an introduction of proper education and cautionary measures would be great. Importantly more gravity needs to be given to head collisions and concussions sustained on the field now that we better understand the ramifications.