World Rugby launches initiative as it says head trauma just one dementia factor

Rugby 's governing body has launched a new campaign to "educate and support" past and present players concerned about their mental well-being.

World Rugby officially unveiled the Brain Health Initiative in partnership with its national unions and International Rugby Players at its medical commission conference in London on Wednesday.

A rise in diagnoses of early-onset dementia and other brain abnormalities among retired rugby players has led to greater concern over the long-term effects of a professional career in rugby.

Former All Black Carl Hayman is among the latest ex-rugby players to join a lawsuit against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) having been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

Steve Thompson, a former England hooker and member of the 2003 Rugby World Cup -winning side, and ex- Wales back-rower Alix Popham are also part of the legal case after they were also diagnosed with the disease.

However, the sport's global federation identified head impacts (or brain injury) as just one of 12 "modifiable risk factors" that could lead to a player developing dementia.

World Rugby published a video featuring comment from Dr. Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, who explained the other contributors:

According to the initiative, these can include other contributing illnesses like diabetes, depression or high blood pressure, a s well as 'lifestyle choices' such as smoking, alcohol consumption and physical activity.

“This is incredibly important work from World Rugby that will undoubtedly benefit the global game and broader sport," said Dr. Stewart.

"While progress is being made to reduce risk for current and future players through changes to training and gameplay, it is important that the brain health of former players is not overlooked. This initiative highlights the importance of our brain health and the measures we can all take to try and reduce our risk of dementia.”

Former Wales centre and two-time British and Irish Lions tourist Jamie Roberts —who is a qualified doctor—warned anyone with concerns about their brain health should "speak to their doctor or healthcare provider."

Sir Bill Beaumont, the World Rugby Chairman, said in a statement the organisation cares "deeply about every member of our rugby family, and constantly strive to safeguard and support our players. We have consistently acted on evolving science and evidence to advance player welfare for all."

He went on to mention "lifestyle changes" as something that could help in regards to preventing brain abnormalities, though some may interpret that as putting an onus on the player to inspire positive change.

“I’ve been saddened by the recent, brave accounts of former players about their experiences," said Beaumont. "As a former player myself, I appreciate that some players may be worried about their brain health. We must, and are, putting those players at the heart of our welfare plans. Good brain health is much wider than what happens on the field, and we have more control over it than you would think.

"It is about creating community, starting conversations and building an understanding of how we all can make lifestyle changes that can positively impact our long-term well-being. At the same time, we will not sit still in evolving our game to ensure its (sic) best protects those playing it.

World Rugby's new initiative cites research and comment from medical professionals, although there is little detail as to how much each of the "modifiable risk factors" can contribute.

Repeated head trauma is likely to be a shared theme among almost all of those suing rugby's lawmakers for neglect, and the suggestion changes in lifestyle may have prevented their diagnoses will be a subtle comfort.

Thompson, 43, confirmed in September that he'll donate his brain for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition linked to head trauma that can only be diagnosed after death.

Ireland international Sene Naoupu, who also serves as head of strategic projects and research at International Rugby Players, said: “We are working hard on concussion management, both in terms of injury prevention as well as the ongoing support of players throughout their lives.

"There’s no doubt that the development of brain clinics in our major rugby playing regions is a big step in the right direction – an initiative that we’ve worked alongside World Rugby on. Looking ahead, we seek to continue to improve the offering to retired players, ensuring that those in need feel looked after in every way possible.”

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