Children under the age of 14 should not be playing contact sports such as rugby, a neuroscientist in the US told Sunday.
The co-founder of the Boston Brain Bank, Dr Chris Nowinski, helped former American football players win $1 billion in compensation from the NFL for the impact of repeated head knocks.
He said if children only started playing tackle rugby after the age of 14, long-term brain damage can be reduced.
The main concern is a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE.
“We’ve seen CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] in people who’ve died as young as 17, but we’ve also seen CTE in people who stop playing sports at 13,” Nowinski said.
Former All Black Geoff Old played three tests and 14 matches in black between 1980 and 1983. He played in one of the All Blacks’ most famous games: the flour bomb test against the Springboks in 1981.
But, Old can’t remember the game at all.
He was never treated or stood down for concussions. In one instance in 1980, he was back in full contact training the next day after experiencing concussion symptoms.
Old went on to become USA Rugby’s technical director in 2001. But, by his early 50s, he was starting to notice changes.
“I started making mistakes myself. I was forgetting stuff, getting frustrated, anxious,” he told Sunday.
It got so bad he had to quit his job at USA Rugby. He turned to drinking.
“Trying to self medicate. I don't know how else to put it. It wasn't doing any good. But, at the time, I thought it was the only solution I had.”
Old has been experiencing CTE symptoms for about two decades now. While CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, Old’s displays tell-tale signs of it.
His wife Irene said doctors in the US and New Zealand all, without exception, said it was probable CTE.
She said early-onset dementia was mentioned in some of Old’s reports, as well as cognitive impairment and post-concussion syndrome.
Old started experiencing symptoms about two decades ago. It was around the same time a number of former american football players in their 40s and 50s were starting to show signs of serious mental decline.
The Human Brain Bank in New Zealand has only been asking for the brains of rugby players for the past two years. It has yet to receive a brain with CTE.
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