Former international rugby union players are at much higher risk of dementia, motor neuron disease and Parkinson’s disease than the general population, new research shows.
The risk varies by condition, ranging from just over double for dementia to 15 times for MND.
The risk of Parkinson’s was three times higher.
The study of former Scotland internationals raises further concerns about the impact of concussions and blows to the head on rugby players.
It has led to renewed calls from researchers for strategies to reduce the risks of head impact and traumatic brain injury in all sports, including training.
Traumatic brain injury is a major risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases and is believed to account for 3 percent of all dementia cases.
It comes as the problem of head injuries in rugby has reached the courts here and across the UK.
Three retired rugby players, including two former internationals, have started legal proceedings against the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) in what is believed to be the first in a series of concussion-related cases.
The case was started a week ago by former Munster player David Corkery, ex-Ulster tighthead propsman Declan Fitzpatrick and retired Connacht star Ben Marshall in Dublin’s High Court. All three are represented by Maguire McClafferty.
The latest study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry was led by neuropathologist Professor Willie Stewart, Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow.
He said “of particular concern is the data on the risk of motor neuron disease in rugby players, which is even higher than that of professional footballers”.
“The finding warrants immediate research attention to examine the link between rugby and the devastating condition,” he added.
When asked to comment on the study, Prof Brian Lawlor, a geriatric psychiatrist at St James’s Hospital in Dublin and deputy executive director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College, said the results confirm previous research.
He said rugby players could suffer a concussion or a blow to the head that might not result in a concussion. For soccer players, the risk comes from repeatedly heading the ball.
He added: “There is a growing awareness of the risk. This applies not only to games, but also in practice. Soccer players, for example, should minimize headers in training.”
The research involved 412 Scottish ex-male international rugby players – out of an original total of 654 – for whom full health and field position data was available and who were at least 30 years old at the end of 2020.
Players were matched against 1,236 members of the public based on age, gender and socioeconomic status.
Ex-rugby players had a lower rate of death from any cause up to age 70, after which there was no difference between the two groups.
No differences in cause of death or age of death were found between ex-rugby players and the comparison group for the most common primary causes of death among Scottish men.
Additional analysis showed that the field position – forward or backward – of ex-rugby players had no impact on their risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.
Similar risks have been identified in previous studies of American football players.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/top-rugby-players-are-at-increased-dementia-and-motor-neurone-disease-risk-new-study-shows-42041033.html Top rugby players have an increased risk of dementia and motor neuron disease, a new study shows