Many sports over the years have been questioned over possible links to dementia. Football, boxing, ice hockey and American Football are a couple of sports that come to mind. Several rugby players have been diagnosed with dementia, due to the physical nature of the sport.
With the 2023 Rugby World Cup currently taking place in France, there’s been a major focus on making the sport safer. England’s 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson’s documentary “Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me” covered how his life changed when he was diagnosed with early onset dementia.
While there has been plenty of research conducted around the links between rugby and dementia, this article covers if there is a link between the two.
Latest research around dementia and rugby
There has been plenty of research conducted by researchers around dementia and rugby over the past several years.
The FIELD (Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia) research programme found that ex-professional rugby players were around two and a half times higher risk of developing dementia compared to the general population. This was based upon a study, comparing the health outcomes of 412 former Scottish professional men’s rugby players and matched them with over 1,200 individuals.
Another study, conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that retired professional rugby players aged 50 or over who had multiple rugby-related concussions had weaker cognitive function than those who did not. It means that ex-rugby players are at risk of developing neuro-degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia later in life.
Well-known rugby players who have dementia
Compared to football, rugby is a more physical sport, meaning that there’s a high likelihood of repeated blows to the head between players. Professional rugby players are also at risk of multiple concussions, which can affect them when they retire.
Over the past several years, more ex-rugby players have been diagnosed with dementia. Former Wales captain Ryan Jones, Dafydd James, and ex-New Zealand tighthead prop Carl Hayman are just a few in a long list of former international players who have been diagnosed with dementia.
What is being done to reduce the risk of dementia in rugby players?
Rugby has taken some steps to address the issue of dementia and head injuries in the sport.
In 2021, World Rugby, national rugby unions and International Rugby Players joint-launched the Brain Health Initiative. The worldwide campaign is aimed at educating current and ex-professional rugby players around brain health and wellbeing. Within the campaign, World Rugby will support the free brain clinics model, where former rugby players will be able to access advice, as well as get expert consultation and clinical assessment.
As more research continues to be completed around rugby and dementia, the rules and regulations of the game will change. It means that the changes made will make the sport safer and improve player welfare during and after their careers.
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