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Brain injury

‘We want to be part of the solution – for Bill and future generations’

Dr Judith Gates speaks to NR Times about this weekend’s football match organised by Head for Change, which will be the first ever to involve no heading of the ball

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The first football match which involves no heading of the ball will help raise awareness and stimulate conversation about the impact of head injury in sport, its organisers have said. 

The 11-a-side match, involving 25 former professional footballers, has been hailed as an experiment as researchers try to discover whether the game can function without heading, in light of ever-growing research which links football to neurodegenerative disease.

It is organised by Head for Change, the organisation helping to drive forward calls for changes to player safety, and will only allow headers in the penalty box for the first half and then restrict all heading during the second half. 

It will be held at Spennymoor Town Football Club, in County Durham, on Sunday at 3pm. 

The event forms part of the “legacy” for former Spennymoor Town and Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates, who has sports-related dementia, and whose wife Dr Judith Gates is co-founder and chair of Head for Change. 

Dr Judith Gates

“When Bill received his diagnosis in 2017, we made two promises to him,” Dr Gates tells NR Times. 

“One was to optimise his life and do all we could to make his life as good as we could as a dad, grandad and great grandad, and the second was for his legacy, to do everything we could to be part of the solution for future generations of footballers and their families not to have to face this.

“The purpose of this match is to raise awareness of the dangers of heading the ball and to provide alternative discussion with purpose. It’s an experiment to see what the game will look like. 

“To be clear, Head for Change is not suggesting heading should be banned, that is a decision for football’s governing authorities, not for us. 

“But we want people to realise the impact. Bill was a Titan to me in his 20s, fit and indestructible, so if this disease can do this to him, it can happen to anyone.”

The match has attracted widespread media attention and comes after an array of stark academic findings, including the research from Professor Willie Stewart that footballers are up to five times more likely to suffer from dementia than the general population. 

“Part of why I co-founded Head for Change was to be part of the solution,” says Dr Gates. 

“We’re extremely aware that there is a lot of bashing going on and everyone is saying it’s someone else’s fault, but lessons must be learnt from the past. 

“For too long we have been assured that our brain was safe in our skull, but we are increasingly understanding how the brain works and how it can be damaged through contact sports. Education will continue to play a very important role in what happens going forward.”

The match itself – which will also be raising money for The Solan Connor Fawcett Cancer Trust – will be held at Spennymoor Town’s stadium, The Brewery Field. 

The town is where Dr Gates grew up and met her husband, and in a quirk of fate, Spennymoor Town’s chief executive Brad Groves used to work for Bill as a warehouseman when Bill owned a chain of sports stores. 

The club, alongside those playing in the match, have been hugely supportive of their ambitions, says Dr Gates. 

“We’ve been amazed at the extent to which they have stepped up, Spennymoor have been phenomenal. Brad has been so kind in offering whatever he can do to help. We are hugely appreciative,” she says. 

“The players taking part are excited to be part of it, they may not be able to use one of their many footballing skills but they can use the rest of them. 

“Spennymoor is a small town with a big heart and we are so pleased to be able to hold this match, and particularly here, at Bill’s first club.”

Brain injury

‘Take urgent action on rugby player safety’

Rugby’s authorities must act now to protect players at all levels, following publication of the landmark BRAIN study

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rugby players in a scrum with their heads and shoulders down

Rugby’s governing authorities are being urged to take “urgent preventative action” to protect players at all levels of the sport after new research suggests the game may have been safer in the pre-professional era. 

The BRAIN study, published today, found that former elite rugby players who experienced three or more concussions during their career did not have worse cognitive function before the age of 75 than those who had experienced no, or just one or two, concussions. 

The study found no overall group association between concussion history and worse cognitive function, but did find that 29 per cent of over 75s who had sustained three or more rugby-related concussions during their career had significantly worse cognitive function.

However, results from the BRAIN study – funded by The Drake Foundation, which worked with 146 former elite rugby players in England aged 50 and over, most of whom played in the pre-professional era – call into question whether safety standards in the sport have worsened since the game became professional.  

Several retired players from the modern era have recently been diagnosed with early-onset neurodegenerative disease and likely Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). 

In addition, the neuroimaging results of the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study, published earlier this year, found that 23 per cent of current elite adult rugby players tested had abnormalities in brain structure, and half showed an unexpected change in brain volume.

The Foundation has also been vocal in its campaign to make recommendations around safety in rugby and football enforceable rules, and is now calling for further immediate emphasis on player welfare. 

“These findings are broadly reassuring for players from the amateur era,” says Lauren Pulling, CEO of The Drake Foundation. 

“However, given the findings of the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study and recent cases of early-onset brain disease in ex-players from the professional era, the new study results do call into question how long-term health might differ in players from the modern era.

“The evidence we have so far suggests that the sport may actually be travelling in the wrong direction in terms of player welfare and brain health. 

“In addition to further research, we therefore also urge the sport’s governing bodies to review the modern game’s laws and protocols and take urgent, preventative action to universally reduce players’ exposure to head impacts both in matches and training.”

Additional research carried out this month on behalf of The Drake Foundation by Censuswide, via an online survey of 508 respondents in the UK who are involved in rugby union, found that 62 per cent of adults who either play amateur rugby or have a child who plays rugby are concerned about the long-term effects of the sport on their or their child’s brain health. 

This figure rises to 73 per cent for parents who do not play the game themselves, but who have a child that does.

Over 60 per cent agree that rugby has become a more dangerous sport at all levels since it turned professional in 1995, whilst 66 per cent believe that rugby union would be safer if fundamental law changes were introduced to better reflect the way the sport was played in the pre-professional era.

James Drake, founder of The Drake Foundation, says: “As a passionate sports fan who loves rugby, I’ve witnessed first-hand the way the game has evolved since turning professional. 

“In my view it’s a sport that has become ostensibly less safe for the players involved and my concerns are reflected by our research this month, which reveals 61 per cent of adults who either play the game or have children that do, are concerned about the sport’s long-term effect on brain health.

“A further two thirds of adults believe the sport could be made safer if law changes were introduced to return it to the game as it was played in the amateur era. The Drake Foundation is calling on rugby’s authorities to give this immediate consideration to protect the sport we love and the current and future generations who play it.”

The BRAIN study is the first to carry out detailed measurements of cognitive function in a large number of former players and to relate this to their concussion and playing history. 

It was conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Occupational Medicine with researchers from UCL and the University of Oxford, and with assistance from the Rugby Football Union (RFU). 

It is also the first to include substantial numbers from the over-75 age-group. Previous studies which have focussed on younger players have found little or no association between concussions and reduced cognitive function.

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Brain injury

Digital information boosts GPs’ support for brain injury survivors

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Brain injury survivors can now access digital information from their GPs to help increase the levels of support and signposting currently available through a new partnership. 

Headway has teamed up with online platform Healthinote to help GPs to give survivors and their carers and families personalised information, which is sent to them digitally after their appointments to read and digest at home. 

The ‘health information prescription’ is presented through visual, immersive and interactive content, and increases both the range and accessibility of virtual resources available to people living with brain injuries. 

Healthinote, which is integrated into the eConsult platform, is in use in over 1,700 GP practices nationwide and can be accessed by over 13,700 GPs. 

The availability of dedicated brain injury resources from Headway, presented via the accessible and engaging channels delivered by Healthinote, is enabling GPs to increase their support to survivors and maximise use of what can be used to support patients remotely. 

“We want to empower people to understand their treatment or condition and supply them with the right health information at the right time,” says Alex Merckx, director of marketing and partnerships at Cognitant, the business which developed and manages Healthinote. 

“Getting accurate information into patients’ hands is very important. Consultations with your GP are very quick and there can be a lot to take in, and while they tell us not to Google things afterwards, of course we all do, and that can lead to misinformation. 

“By using Healthinote, GPs can supply verified, trusted, accurate information to patients and carers, and supplement the work they do face to face. The information is saved to a patient’s electronic record, so if they go on to see a doctor or nurse afterwards, things can be more joined up and they know what resources they have had access to. 

“We are trying to add value to a GP consultation and effectively maximise the customer experience that you would expect from any service, to ensure patients can go away with the information and signposting they need in a format they can understand.”

“The complex, fluctuating and often hidden effects of brain injury can make it difficult for people to get the help and support they need,” says Peter McCabe, chief executive of Headway.

“We recognise the challenges faced by GPs in not only understanding the complexities of brain injury, but also signposting survivors and carers to specialist information and services.

“Too many people slip through the net and are left to cope with impact of brain injury without help of support.

“That’s why this partnership with Healthinote is so exciting.

“It will make it easier for GPs to provide patient or carer-specific information from Headway, whether in the form of our award-winning publications or signposting to local Headway groups or branches, helping us meet our goal of ensuring no one has to deal with brain injury alone.”

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Brain injury

‘Revise way concussion is viewed to achieve real change’

“We’re getting it wrong in society and healthcare,” says Dr Adam J White of the Concussion Legacy Foundation UK

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Views of concussion in society must be altered, alongside much-needed revision of protocols in sport – particularly at grassroots – if change in how head injury is viewed and dealt with is truly going to happen, says Dr Adam J White, executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation UK. NR Times learns more

 

Since the launch of the UK chapter of the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) last month, its accompanying helpline has seen huge demand for support from veterans and amateur athletes concerned at the impact of their head injuries and the implications of sustaining them.  

The CLF has set ambitious targets to prevent new cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) within five years and of finding a cure by 2040. 

And in being able to achieve that, Dr Adam J White, executive director of CLF UK, says as well as making the necessary changes within sport to protect players, concussion must also be recognised for its seriousness in wider society. 

“Concussion is an issue in sport, it’s an issue in the military, but it’s an issue in everyday life. And it’s an area where we’re just getting it wrong in terms of society and healthcare,” Dr White tells NR Times. 

‘We’re not doing enough to support people with mild traumatic brain injuries, they’re falling between the gaps. They’ve got some real complex needs that aren’t being catered for by the NHS in the UK at the moment, and that’s a real worry. 

“Through the helpline, we’ve had a huge number of people seeking help with their concussions and I think more and more people will be presenting to us. And I hope more and more people do, because it’s not trivial, it is important. 

“These are serious injuries, each and every one of them, so they do need to be given support for that condition.

“At the moment, the kinds of guidance they’re getting is inadequate, they’re often being told to go home and rest and are often given very little other information. Depending on which hospital you attend depends on what kind of information you’re going to get.

“Often, there’ll be no further referral or no follow-up, typically you’re told if anything deteriorates come back, but people are often not given any treatment plans or support with a huge raft of needs from motor needs, coordination, headaches, sleep disorders. People are then left to fend for themselves, which can impact significantly on their lives.”

Through the work of CLF in its native United States and its role in establishing the world-leading VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank in Boston – which it is now building further around the world, including in the UK with the creation of the CLF Project – huge advances have been made in understanding the causes of CTE, with links now proven with repeated head impacts over a period of time. 

As a result, CLF’s founder Dr Chris Nowinski – whose exposé of NFL safety protocols in 2006 is credited as revolutionising the sport – has become a leading advocate of the need to protect children from the impact of heading. 

“Delaying heading as much as we can to restart it much later is a really great first step,” says Dr White. 

“By saying there will be no heading until 14 or 16 or 18, we’re reducing our exposure, which would be fantastic. It’s not a core component of the game. It could be removed and most of the game would maintain its beauty, its fun, its enjoyment. So that could be a great first step. 

“Sport is a difficult nut to crack but we can affect changes. We’ve given sport five years to stop all new cases of CTE, but we could do it tomorrow. The reality is we know how to make this condition stop, but we need to be bold enough and brave enough to make the change. 

“What we need to do is reduce the exposure, and then making sure that in tandem with that, we are making sure when players do get concussed, that we deal with it properly, so we’re not returning players the same week, we’re making sure they have plenty of time to rest and recover.

“We’re making sure that they’re not putting their brains through lots of extra stress and they’re not coming back to full contract sessions. We need to see all of those those policies and protocols put in place.”

While change is indeed starting to happen, with measures being taken including restrictions on full-contact training in rugby and high-force heading in football training, Dr White says advocacy has a huge role to play in driving this forward further still. 

“I think in terms of preventing this issue in the future, it’s about the players, it’s about the parents and the grassroots game,” he says. 

“Athletes often forget the power they have. If they decide to vote with their feet, if parents decide that they’re not going to let their kids do this anymore, it’ll change. But we’ve seen there has been plenty of opportunity for sport to make the change themselves and they’ve never been brave enough to do it. 

“Now, we’re seeing more and more people saying, no, we’re not going to allow this. People are asking do I want my daughter to be heading the ball, do I want this for my child, and we really need them to continue to do that. Children can do so many other kinds of physical activity and exercise but without the risks.”

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