25 May 2021
Dementia in Sports Participants: An Industrial Disease?
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Concussion in Sport Inquiry committee has been holding consultations with leading experts, former professional sports athletes, the Chief Medical Officers and Chief Executives of Sports Governing Bodies as well as charities and campaigners to fully investigate brain injury in sport. The authors recently explored gender differences in the risk of sport-related concussion in this blog post and the use of saliva testing to diagnose concussion in sports here.
The Inquiry has already looked at ‘scientific evidence for links between head trauma and dementia and how risks could be mitigated’. Committee Chair, Julian Knight, said ‘We’re seeing a number of cases involving brain injury in sport likely to reach the doors of our law courts and we will also look at the implications for sport in the longer term of any successful legal claim.’
Professor Willie Stewart, Consultant Neuropathologist from the University of Glasgow and adviser to World Rugby, was amongst the experts appearing before the Committee. Professor Stewart also gave evidence to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC), as part of its investigation into brain injuries in football, and it’s hoped that other contact sports will soon be included in the IIAC’s research.
According to Professor Stewart, in the FIELD (Football’s InfluencE on Lifelong outcomes and Dementia risk) study, first commissioned by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) charity and the FA in 2017, former professional football players were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease. The PFA had written, as far back as 2003, to the IIAC to request that dementia in footballers be classified as an Industrial Injury.
A number of Player Associations have funds to help former players who need help and are partnered with brain health charities to help their members including the Rugby Players Association who partner Sporting Memories and the PFA who work with the Jeff Astle Foundation and Sporting Minds. The Professional Cricketers Association (PCA) has partnered with charities including the Alzheimer’s Society’s new campaign ‘Sport United Against Dementia’ to provide support to families affected across different sports including advice on benefits. However, charities have been significantly hit by the impact of Covid-19.
If recognised as an Industrial Disease, the route to care and financial assistance would be much easier to access for all those involved. A pathway would be in place to help them to navigate care and compensation for the injury sustained. In order to be classified as an Industrial Disease there must be a ‘recognised risk to workers in an occupation, and the link between disease and occupation can be established or reasonably presumed in individual cases.’ (IIAC Position Paper 15 – Sporting Injuries – Dementia in boxers, footballers and jockeys).
This is an evolving area, involving contact sport for men, women and children, and amongst numerous recommendations made by the Professional Players Federation (PPF) to the Concussion in Sport Inquiry was the request that ‘The Industrial Injuries Advisory Committee needs to make a decision at the earliest opportunity as to whether dementia in former sportsman and women should be classified as an industrial injury.’
What is clear is that vital progress is already being made in this area and whatever the outcome of the Inquiry, and associated investigations, participation in sport is going to be made safer for all.
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