Academic Warns Head Injuries May Increase Rugby Dementia Risk

Players At Higher Peril Of Illness In Later Life, Expert Says


A professor of physiology and biochemistry has warned that rugby players who suffer multiple blows to the head over the course of their career may find this increases the ageing of the brain and makes it more likely they will suffer early dementia.

Professor Damian Bailey, who is based at the University of South Wales, told the BBC's Week In Week Out programme how studies on 280 past and present players showed blows to the head were responsible for significant effects.

"Young players’ repetitive concussions can have a negative impact on the way the brain functions - certainly in terms of the way it regulates blood flow to itself, which we think is an important part of brain health," he noted, adding that for retired players there are signs that "repetitive concussions can conspire to impair the way players can remember and formulate ideas" later in life.

He concluded that this "accelerates brain ageing" and thus means there is a greater danger of early-onset dementia.

Professor Bailey's research has not yet been published, but the International Rugby Board (IRB) told the BBC it will respond when the data is available. The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has said it intends to meet the professor to discuss his research.

Chief medical manager at the WRU Prav Mathema said rugby has gone a lot further than other sports in acknowledging the issue of concussion and brain injury, but he said there does need to be more research into the effects of multiple blows to the head.

Noting that both the IRB and WRU are having more research carried out, he said one of the key issues emerging is the importance of preventing concussion in the first place.

In September this year, the WRU launched its own concussion education programme, aimed at ensuring players, coaches and match officials at all levels of the game in Wales know about concussion, what its symptoms and effects are, as well as how to deal with it when a player is hurt.

Expert Opinion
The debate surrounding the way head injuries and concussions are treated in rugby and a number of other sports has been a significant talking point over recent months, with positive steps in the way head injuries are dealt with being made with new protocols implemented to protect players.

“Head injuries can have a long-term impact on sufferers, as noted by the latest studies, which indicate how important it is that the correct medical procedures and treatments are in place to protect those suffering head injuries on the field. Through our work we have seen the lasting impact brain injuries can have and know how crucial it is those involved in collisions on the field are treated correctly and removed from play if there is the possibility of a concussive head injury.”
Neil Whiteley, Partner