Rugby urged to consider immediate law changes after new concussion research

·4-min read
Rugby urged to consider immediate law changes after new concussion research - PA
Rugby urged to consider immediate law changes after new concussion research - PA

Rugby has been urged to consider immediate law changes after new research suggested a link between multiple concussions and significantly worse brain function in older age.

The Brain study looked at 146 former players predominantly from the amateur era and, although no major differences were found before the age of 75, those players with three or more concussions were eventually more likely to experience cognitive decline.

Researchers found that the 29 per cent of over-75s who reported multiple concussions had significantly worse cognitive function than those with two or less.

The players, who were all aged over 50 and had previously represented England, Oxford University or Cambridge University, had their cognitive function measured using a standard pre-clinical test.

Those over-75s with three concussions or more scored two points lower on the scale and, although this does not indicate disease, researchers said that it may indicate an increased risk of eventually developing neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's.

"Evidence is accumulating on the possible long-term health risks in former contact sport athletes - this study adds to this knowledge gap, and shows that playing elite rugby may affect cognitive function in older age,” said Prof Neil Pearce, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) who worked on the study with researchers from the Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Occupational Medicine.

World Rugby have stressed that they are actively trialling laws aimed at reducing the risk of head impacts, as well as evaluating tackle heights, and they have issued new guidance to reduce contact time in training.

The research was funded by The Drake Foundation, whose biomarker study, published earlier this year, also found that 23 per cent of current elite adult rugby players had abnormalities in brain structure.

“As a passionate sports fan who loves rugby, I’ve witnessed first-hand the way the game has evolved since turning professional,” said James Drake, the founder of the Drake Foundation.

“In my view it’s a sport that has become ostensibly less safe for the players and my concerns are reflected by our research this month, which reveals 61 per cent of adults who either play the game or have children that do, are concerned about the sport’s long-term effect on brain health.

“A further two-thirds of adults believe the sport could be made safer if law changes were introduced to return it to the game as it was played in the amateur era.”

'Head impacts need to be urgently addressed'

A group of former players, including 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, are taking legal action against rugby authorities over brain injuries they have suffered during their career.

Thompson, who is suffering from early-onset dementia, says he no longer remembers playing for England in the World Cup 18 years ago and there is concern that the game has become significantly less safe during the professional era.

“The fact that two-thirds of those involved in the amateur game are concerned about rugby’s effect on long-term brain health shows there is a big issue here that needs to be urgently addressed,” said Lewis Moody, the former England forward.

“I would like to see enforceable guidelines across all levels of rugby to limit players’ exposure to head impacts in order to protect players and the game that we love.”

World Rugby pointed to its own recent research showing that around two-thirds of rugby fans believe that the sport is acting proactively on making the game as safe as it can be.

“We will continue to do everything we can do, from the child and community game through to the elite level, to reassure on participation safety as well as the lifelong benefits to health and happiness from playing rugby,” said a spokesperson.

Dr Simon Kemp, the Rugby Football Union's medical services director, stressed the need to conduct research with younger retired players.

A new Advanced Brain Health Clinic will open next week which will assess retired elite male and female rugby players between the ages of 30 to 55 who have concerns over their individual brain health.

The study concluded that it had found "no overall evidence of an association between rugby-related concussion and cognitive function, but there was an increased risk in older adults aged 75+ who reported three or more concussions".

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