Concussion issue big enough but now research links big hits with Alzheimer’s
Brain injuries expert’s published case on early onset dementia caused by rugby could effect management of head injuries
Those collisions were certainly less than the “small car crash” impacts prevalent in the modern game.
Researchers have started gathering data on the severity and frequency of hits at club level rugby.
“That data suggests you are looking at something that is not far off what you see American football, that is hard, frequent and significantly hits going in game after game,” he says.
Symptoms of dementia usually appear between 12 and 16 years after the career begins and include memory, speech and personality problems, tremors and a lack of coordination.
The rugby player examined by Dr Stewart was aged in his 50s and had early onset dementia. The number of abnormal proteins in a section of his brain was comparable to that of a young man who had suffered a “moderate to severe” head injury in an assault.
“Our American colleagues are seeing it in the majority of brains they are looking at in American football,” he says. “The figure is in the region of 60-70 per cent of the brains.
“In boxers it has been recognised for decades and is some like 15 to 20 per cent of people exposed to injury. I have no strong data but my suspicion is those figures are probably higher than in rugby.
If it were 20 per cent or 50 per cent or 80 per cent we would have known about it by now. But even if it’s low, even if it’s one per cent of people participating in rugby, by way of illustration, that’s one per cent of the players playing in a Six Nations.
“It may not seem very much but is a significant figure because that is one or two players who may go on and develop a dementia they wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. That is a realistic number.
“It could be less than that. It could be more than that. We are at the very early stages but I don’t think it’s as high as high as boxing and I certainly hope it is never as high as American football because that would be really frightening.”
Four minutes and 39 seconds into Australia’s third Test against the Lions this summer, 32-year-old flanker George Smith, fearfully smashed heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard and fell to the ground, senseless.
The flanker had to be helped to his feet and assisted from the field by two men, his left leg and left arm seemingly in spasm. Just over five minutes later, he was back on the pitch.
‘’It obviously affected me,” said Smith afterwards. “You saw me snake dancing off the field.
“I passed the (concussion) tests that were required within those five minutes and I got out there.’’
To the surprise and dismay of many watching the match.