Former RWC winner Steve Thompson recently revealed in a BBC interview that he has packed away all of the medals and trophies garnered during his stellar career, as each one has become a painful reminder of his early onset dementia diagnosis.
Of course, Thompson is just one several Rugby Union and League players who have received such a diagnosis of late, as the correlation between playing these sports and incurring long-term brain injuries becomes increasingly stark.
But what are the studies showing us, and how can the sport adapt in the wake of recent findings? We’ll take a closer look in the article below.
Dementia in Rugby – A Clear and Present Risk
The FIELD (Football’s Influence on Lifelong health and Dementia risk) research programme is one of the most conclusive studies in this space, comparing the health outcomes of 412 ex-professional Scottish rugby players (who were all male) against 1,200 individuals from the general population.
Incredibly, it was found that former Rugby Union and League players had twice the risk of developing dementia in later life than the general population, with this a considerable difference that echoes the findings of similar studies.
The FIELD programme has previously found an increased risk of specified brain diseases in former association footballers, for example, and its recent study confirmed that former rugby players were also at a much higher risk of a receiving a neurodegenerative disease diagnosis during their lifetime.
Interestingly, the results also showed that the age at death was slightly higher among former rugby players, but this could be caused by numerous factors such as physical fitness and the precise disease subtype in question.
What About Motor Neuron Disease (MND)?
Arguably, the risk of being diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND) is even higher in rugby players, with the number of former professionals being diagnosed increasing year-on-year.
Incredibly, this rare and fatal disease is 15-times more likely in former Rugby Union and League professionals, with the legendary Scotland and Lions players Doddie Weir one of the latest casualties having passed away in 2022.
Former Rugby League star Rob Burrow also revealed that he had been diagnosed with MND in December 2019, while has continued to draw awareness to the issue and was appointed a much-deserved MBE for his efforts in the 2021 New Years’ Honours list.
As we’ve touched on, such risks aren’t exclusive to both rugby codes, with all high level contact sports seeing a sharp increase in the rate of diagnosis among ex-professionals over time.
In fact, one study revealed that such individuals are eight-and-a-half times more likely to develop brain diseases over time, as the issue becomes impossible for authorities to ignore.
The Last Word – What’s Next for Rugby?
In addition to the incredible human cost here, the RFU, WRU and World Rugby are all set to be served with legal proceedings related to these findings and individual cases.
In fact, the lawyers filing these complaints are representing players who are currently suffering neurological impairments, with some 225 claimants seeking both financial compensation and far greater protections for current and future players.
The challenge here, however, is how rugby’s authorities can best identify and treat brain injuries in the sport, whether this involves tightening up in-game concussion protocols or amending the rules to minimise the number of head injuries and collisions incurred in the first place. Ultimately, both measures (and many others) are likely to be required if the sport is to truly address this issue, otherwise the health of players and the authorities’ wider reputation will be exposed to further risk in the future.