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Our response to the study showing an increased MND risk in former elite rugby players

04 October 2022

Summary of the Study:

This study looked at the health outcomes of former Scotland International rugby players by examining the types of health conditions they have experienced and their causes of death. It found that, while they lived slightly longer than the average population, they appeared to have an increased risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and MND.

Please note, the following statement relates only to the findings that suggest a potential link between elite rugby and MND. We cannot comment on data related to other neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease.

My Name'5 Doddie Foundation Statement: 

Jessica Lee, Director of Research at My Name’5 Doddie Foundation said
: “The study published today has suggested a potential increased risk of motor neuron disease (MND) amongst former Scottish international rugby players, compared with the general population. Whilst these results are concerning, the findings should be viewed with caution. The sample size included in the study is relatively small, especially when studying an uncommon condition like MND. These findings therefore warrant further investigation in larger scale studies.

Whilst the study showed a correlation between Scottish international rugby players and the incidence of MND, it did not provide evidence of a causal relationship. Further research is needed to better understand whether playing elite sport, including rugby, could lead to the development of MND.”

Doddie Weir said; "Any research to help us better understand MND is welcome. This study certainly has some surprising findings but we are still not clear on any proven links between rugby and the cause of MND. I have always believed that my rugby career did not lead to me being diagnosed with this terrible disease. My Name’5 Doddie Foundation continues to commit significant funds into MND research that will help us to understand its causes.”

Research that My Name'5 Doddie Foundation is funding in this field includes a study investigating the potential link between strenuous activity and the development of MND.  Pieces of work such as this are essential in better understanding MND and how it can be treated.

Frequently Asked Questions: 

These FAQ's have been put together alongside our friends at MND Association and MND Scotland. 

Is this increased risk large?

The sample size is small, especially for a condition like MND which is not very common, so the results need to be viewed with some caution, and the researchers themselves point out the need for more extensive research to be carried out. Their data suggests that, amongst the group of former elite rugby players they identified, there was an increase in the risk of dementia by 2 times, and an increase of over 15 times for MND. The authors do state that the number of MND cases was very small and, as a result, the margin of error for their estimate is very large.

Does this mean that sports people who play elite rugby will get MND?

No. MND is not a very common condition and, although this study suggests there may be an increased risk associated with elite rugby, the risk is still low. We do not know what the cause may be or why some elite sports people develop MND, while others do not.

So, while this study may have found a possible correlation between playing international-level rugby and being treated for or having MND listed as a cause of death, this does not mean that playing elite rugby causes MND. There may be other explanations – for instance, for reasons we don’t yet understand, it could be that people who are more likely to develop MND are more likely to participate in sport, and end up playing at elite level. There are also many research studies looking at metabolism and exercise as risk factors in MND.

We also do not know whether the players with MND had a familial or sporadic form of the condition.

Does experiencing head trauma lead to MND?

The current study does not look at whether head trauma is linked to MND and it does not show that brain traumas are the cause of the increased MND risk. The authors state that there tends to be an increased level of concussion and brain trauma in people who undertake elite contact sports, but this does not mean this is a cause of MND.

What should I do if I receive a head injury whilst playing rugby?

Scottish Rugby have a policy for managing concussion in players and this should be implemented by all clubs and players. This policy puts the welfare of the player first and this guidance should be followed: https://www.scottishrugby.org/rules-and-regulations/player-welfare/medical/concussion

Should I stop playing rugby?

No. This study followed only elite sportsmen who regularly play rugby at a very high level. We cannot assume that there is a similar risk in people who play recreational rugby, and the risk remains low (see question above).

Should I stop my child from playing rugby?

No. There is no evidence that playing rugby at non-elite level leads to conditions such as MND later in life.

Should I stop exercising?

No. Exercise generally is good for body and brain health. You should always follow the safety regulations of the sport you are participating in.

What are you doing to address this issue?

Because, over the years, several famous sportsmen have developed MND, there have been concerns that there was a possible link between strenuous physical activity and MND. With this study the sample size is very small for a condition as uncommon as MND, so larger studies are needed to fully determine the risk of developing MND in professional rugby players.

MND Scotland are going to be working with Scottish Rugby and the Brain Health Clinic at BT Murrayfield to put together an advisory group to look at the immediate questions and research priorities raised by this study.

MND Scotland, MND Association and My Name'5 Doddie Foundation are all committed to funding research into MND, including investigating causes of the condition.

The paper ‘Neurodegenerative disease risk among former international rugby union players.’ is published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
Our response to the study showing an increased MND risk in former elite rugby players
Our response to the study showing an increased MND risk in former elite rugby players

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