Concussion in Rugby Study Indicates No Link Between Cognitive Function Issues in Players Aged 50 to 75

Head trauma has been a significant concern when managing the clinical experience of retired professional rugby players competing at the elite level. But there is some good news for players who have had a concussion. A new study indicates no decline in cognitive function amongst union players aged 50 and up who have had three or more concussions in rugby.

That’s according to the BRAIN study, which examined details of approximately 150 athletes now retired who are at least 50 years old and who played for Cambridge University, Oxford University or England University. The findings appeared in a recent issue of “Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.”

What Is a Concussion?

A concussion occurs when a strong force hits the head, such as two players running into each other during a game. After a concussion, which doctors refer to as a traumatic brain injury, a person may experience a disruption in the chemical balance in their brain or have nerve tissue damage and bruising on the brain.

In a dynamic sport like rugby, the potential for concussion is high. That’s why the Rugby Football Union is keeping tabs on research coming out now, such as the BRAIN study.

About the BRAIN Study

The BRAIN study is designed to learn more about the connection between concussion in rugby players who compete at the elite level. Scientists want to determine what role concussions might play in developing neurodegenerative diseases, changes in a person’s cognitive abilities, and their overall quality of life.

With assistance from the Rugby Football Union (RFU), BRAIN study researchers began their study at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the Queen Mary University of London, along with scientists at the University of Oxford. The new study is noteworthy because it’s the first of its type to examine cognitive decline in rugby players aged 75 and up.

In what’s known as a cross-sectional study, the researchers examine a sliver of a given population, which is a group that’s meant to represent a cohort of individuals during a specific period, such as the post-retirement era of professional rugby players.

The study involved taking biological samples from the retired rugby players and having them fill out questionnaires before making an assessment.

For comparison, the scientists enrolled about 150 retired athletes with concussions and compared their findings with a group of individuals from the general population.

While the concussion in rugby study did not find a decline in cognitive function for retired rugby players afflicted by concussions between the ages of 50 and 75, it did discover problems with athletes over 75.

It turns out that retired rugby players aged 75 and up who have experienced at least 3 concussions did have much worse cognitive function than fellow athletes who had zero concussions or just one or two. The older players are considered to be at higher risk for mental problems, including loss of memory.

Such findings could influence how rugby players will protect themselves. The new data should encourage other researchers to conduct more research. More comparisons between those who have suffered little to no brain trauma and those who have experienced significant blows to their head while playing rugby could help make the sport safer for all concerned.

The Rugby Football Union Has a Vested Interest in Research Into Concussion in Rugby

To remain relevant and ensure the health and safety of players, the Rugby Football Union has a stake in finding out more about any associations between concussions and mental impairments.

RFU Medical Services Director Dr. Simon Kemp said, “This study, that started in 2017, adds to our developing understanding of the potential long term consequences of head impacts and concussions,” according to a report from England Rugby.

Kemp explained that “the agreed group of participants were aged 50-plus principally because of the greater likelihood that we might detect any neurocognitive decline if present.  It is important to also conduct research with younger retired players.”

The study is a good step in the right direction since more ongoing research will be needed to continue evaluating rugby players for potential problems with qualify-of-life issues going forward.

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