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Brain Injury in Sport: UK Parliamentary Report

The UK Parliament’s Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) committee has released it’s report and recommendations following a detailed inquiry into sports participation and brain injury. The report is the result of a series of parliamentary sessions where experts provided a wide range of evidence to the committee. Among the expert witnesses giving evidence were our friend and colleague Willie Stewart, Consultant Neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow and Brain Health Scotland’s Director Craig Ritchie.

There are undoubted, perhaps unrivalled, benefits of participating in sports for our brain health, engaging in regular exercise is one of the best things we can do to look after our brains. However, certain sports do also carry a risk of sustaining a head injury. We know that suffering blows to the head can cause long term damage to the brain and increases the risk of developing degenerative brain disease. It is therefore vital that we fully understand these risks and what we can do to limit them.

The inquiry was launched following increasing campaigning and media attention to investigate reported links between a professional sports career and an increased risk of dementia.

Attention on this issue further increased when the FIELD study, led by Willie Stewart at the University of Glasgow, provided high quality research evidence of such a link. The FIELD study looked at the medical records of over 7,000 former professional football players in Scotland and found that, while they were at lower risk of heart disease, mental health disorders and certain cancers, the former footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of a degenerative brain disease when compared to the general population. This type of research can’t show conclusively why this would be the case, but it’s really important that if there is something within playing the sport that increases risk, we understand it and we take all possible steps to reduce that risk.

The DCMS report makes several key recommendations including calls for greater research funding and increased education and oversight for managing and reporting concussions in sport. The committee also advise the swift development of a coherent UK-wide protocol for concussion to run across all sports, based on the Scottish model already in place.

The inquiry included evidence spanning grassroots sport to elite participation. At Brain Health Scotland we continue to work closely with national sporting bodies and players associations to ensure we are effectively embedding positive brain health messaging and policies for the greatest benefit of all players at all levels of sport.

We are pleased to see this really important issue receiving the attention and careful consideration it deserves and are encouraged to see the DCMS produce guidance based on the expert evidence provided by Willie and Craig. We now look forward to building on these recommendations, using them as a springboard for meaningful action and improving player wellbeing by promoting the best brain health practice across sport.

Henry Simmons, Chief Executive of Alzheimer Scotland and Associate Director of Brain Health Scotland said:

"We are pleased to see the release of this detailed report from the DCMS following a thorough investigation into this important issue for brain health.

We welcome the recommendations made in this report and we are pleased that it recommends extending models of best practice established and implemented in Scotland across the UK. Such progress of this nature would not have been possible without the leadership and dedication shown by the research community in Scotland and in particular the ground breaking work of in Professor Willie Stewart and his colleagues and more recently the leadership shown by Professor Craig Ritchie to establish and develop Brain Health Scotland. As the report comments, there would have been very little progress had it not been for the immense efforts of those campaigning for greater research investment and understanding. People like Jeff Astle’s daughter, and here in Scotland, the tireless efforts of the late Frank Kopel’s wife Amanda, must be commended alongside the many others who have supported this campaign and driven forward this important area of investigation.

We recognise the many benefits sports participation can have for our overall brain health and welcome any strategic actions that can be put in place to help minimise the associated risks of brain injury. We look forward to working closely with the relevant bodies to ensure these recommendations are taken forward into meaningful action to promote and protect brain health for current, former and future sports participants.”

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