Internationals are two and a half times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases

While unsurprising, the results speak for themselves. According to a study by a team from the University of Glasgow, former international rugby players are two and a half times more likely than the general population to develop neurodegenerative diseases. The risk of developing Parkinson’s disease would also be three times higher and that of motor neuron disease, a type of degenerative disease, would be 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 Scottish rugby teams before comparing them to 1,200 people in the general population, adds to previous studies that indicate links between concussions experienced by players and the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.

Three former Irish players recently filed a complaint against their association for repeated concussions. Other players have already initiated legal proceedings against rugby institutions, such as former England hooker Steve Thompson, who has testified to the press that he suffers from premature dementia.

Are amateurs as exposed as professionals?

According to the study, if the risks weren’t the same based on the type of neurodegenerative disease, the player’s position would have no influence. The researchers note that most of the rugby players studied were amateurs, rugby only turned pro in 1995, which shows that the risks are not limited to professional athletes. “Our concern is in particular about the risk of motor neuron disease among rugby players, which is even higher than for former professional footballers,” said neuropathology consultant Willie Stewart, who led the research team.

“Instead of talking about extending seasons and adding new competitions, we should discuss to reduce them as much as possible,” he added, taking the example of American football, which has reduced contacts at home. “I think rugby can accelerate the rate at which it changes,” said the researcher.

Brian Dickie, director of research and development for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, welcomed the study, asking for more 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 may be different in elite athletes than in the general population,” he said.

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