Although hardly surprising, the results speak for themselves. Former rugby internationals are two and a half times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases than the general population, according to a study by a team from the University of Glasgow. The risk of developing Parkinson’s disease would also be three times higher and that of developing motor neuron disease, a type of degenerative disease, fifteen times higher, according to the results of the study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
The study, which looked at 412 former Scotland rugby international players before comparing them to 1,200 people in the general population, adds to previous studies pointing to links between concussions in players and the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.
Three former Irish players recently filed a complaint against their federation over repeated concussions. Other players have already taken legal action against rugby institutions, such as former England hooker Steve Thompson, who has told the press she has early stages of dementia.
Are amateurs just as exposed as the professionals?
According to the study, if the risks are not the same depending on the type of neurodegenerative disease, the player’s position would have no influence. The researchers note that while most of the rugby players studied were amateurs, rugby only became professional in 1995, showing that the risks are not limited to professional athletes. “Our particular concern is the risk of motor neuron disease in rugby players, which is even higher than in ex-professional footballers,” said neuropathologist Willie Stewart, who led the research team.
“Rather than talking about lengthening seasons and adding new competitions, we should be discussing reducing them as much as possible,” he added, using the example of American football, which has reduced home contacts. “I think rugby can accelerate the rate at which it’s changing,” said the researcher.
Brian Dickie, director of research and development for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, welcomed the study and called for further research. “We know that most cases of motor neuron disease involve a complex mix of genetic and environmental risk factors, so the genetic risk factor in elite athletes may be different than in the general population,” he said.