Rugby legends join large dementia prevention study
Alzheimer’s Society is delighted to announce that former world-leading rugby players, Shane Williams and Ben Kay, have signed up to a large-scale Alzheimer’s Society funded study. The research will look at important and unanswered questions, such as whether elite rugby players show more early warning signs of dementia than the general population, and if so, why this is the case.
Previous research has also shown that professional football players may be at a greater risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s Society have provided funding for an informal pilot study involving football players, including Alan Shearer. This is a much-needed starting point looking at football and dementia, hoping to encourage future research to understand this important issue.
One of Welsh rugby’s all-time greats, Shane Williams MBE, and former English rugby World Cup winner Ben Kay MBE will be among 50 former elite rugby players enrolling in a new phase of the UK and Ireland wide PREVENT study, called PREVENT:RFC.
PREVENT:RFC forms part of Alzheimer’s Society’s ground-breaking Sport United Against Dementia campaign, which is uniting the collective power and reach of sport for the first time to improve the lives of current and former players and fans across the nation. Sport United Against Dementia will raise vital funds towards research like PREVENT and crucial Alzheimer’s Society dementia support services.
Additional funding of £250k from Alzheimer’s Society has enabled the inclusion of 50 former elite rugby players, who will join 700 people already enrolled in PREVENT, and will undergo an initial assessment—involving physical health checks, brain scans, memory assessments, lifestyle questionnaires and sample collections – and then return for another visit two years later.
The number of people with dementia is set to rise to 1 million in the UK by 2025, so it’s essential we understand how to reduce the risk of developing dementia. One of the largest studies looking at prevention of dementia, funded by Alzheimer’s Society for over seven years, PREVENT follows people aged 40-59, aiming to find ways of detecting dementia before symptoms appear, and stopping people from developing the disease. It takes place at Imperial College London, Trinity College Dublin, The University of Edinburgh, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.
PREVENT:RFC will be based in Edinburgh with Professor Craig Ritchie, PREVENT’s Principal Investigator, working in collaboration with Professor William Stewart from the University of Glasgow.
Research from University of Glasgow, led by Professor William Stewart, has shown that professional footballers appear to be five times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease than the general population, although the findings don’t explain why this is the case – a crucial gap in our knowledge, which is why Alzheimer’s Society are supporting this small pilot study into football and dementia. There is much less information on rugby and dementia, which is why we have further funded PREVENT:RFC. By recruiting former elite rugby players, researchers can see whether there are differences between them and the general population, and if so, whether these are associated with greater exposure to injury during the players’ careers.
Ben Kay, retired international rugby union player and PREVENT:RFC participant said: “It was really important to me as a rugby player to take part in this study. There has been a lot of media coverage around this topic lately and as a result, I know lots of players are worried about their dementia risk. Hopefully, by doing this research now, we can get a better understanding of this issue and make a real difference for the future.”
Alan Shearer, retired professional football player, who is taking part in the informal pilot study, said: “I’ve been following the sport and dementia conversation for years now – and there’s still more I want to learn about the science behind the stories in the news. I know the risk of dementia is something that worries many players, so work directed to understanding the earliest stage of dementia is incredibly important, and this study in rugby players will add to our understanding of that in sport.
“It means a lot to be involved in this pilot study, and as soon there’s an opportunity for a larger study in footballers, count me in.”
Dr Richard Oakley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, funder of the PREVENT study, said: “This is a desperately needed, exciting world-class research study looking to answer questions around brain health in elite rugby players. There’s been a lot of attention focused on sports players who’ve developed dementia, and that’s raised important questions about whether playing sports like football and rugby increases the risk of developing the condition. While we’re seeing some evidence of a potential link, the latest findings don’t explain why sports players may be at a greater risk of developing dementia.
“Alongside launching Sport United Against Dementia, we’re really excited to fund this new phase of the PREVENT study – we hope it’ll provide the answers so many people are looking for. In the meantime, for anyone who is worried about their risk of dementia, you can call our support line or visit our website alzheimers.org.uk.”
Professor Craig Ritchie, Professor of the Psychiatry of Ageing at University of Edinburgh, Principal Investigator for PREVENT and Director of Brain Health Scotland said: “The PREVENT Dementia Programme seeks to identify the earliest stages of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease at a point when they could be halted or even reversed. The addition of a cohort of former elite athletes to this programme will allow us to look for issues specific to that group with a view to minimising all players’ risk of developing dementia in the future.”
Professor William Stewart, Consultant Neuropathologist and Honorary Professor at University of Glasgow, and co-investigator for PREVENT said: “It is vitally important we better understand the links between sports such as football and rugby and dementia, so we can better protect players from any risks they may face. Previous research led by our team at the University of Glasgow demonstrated the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in former professional football players. I am delighted to be a part of this latest PREVENT study into professional rugby players, and the adjoining pilot looking at professional football players, so we can bring more insight to this important research area.”
As well as adding to existing research, Sport United Against Dementia will help to create a dementia inclusive industry, ensuring the sporting community and fans alike have access to dedicated dementia support, by funding key elements of Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Connect service. The campaign’s Board include representatives from the League Manager’s Association, Premier League, FA and Premiership Rugby, who are committed to developing a more dementia friendly sporting industry.
First published: 26 April 2021