World Rugby, national unions and International Rugby Players are launching the Brain Health Initiative today, a global education campaign to increase understanding of the importance of brain health within the rugby family.
Initially aimed at current and former professional players, this groundbreaking campaign is being launched at the World Rugby Medical Commission Conference in London. It reflects World Rugby’s ongoing conversations with member unions, leading independent scientific and medical experts, and local healthcare authorities with specialist provision for medical and social care directed towards brain health. This is also a reflection of World Rugby’s aim to maintain rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare.
There are 12 ‘modifiable risk factors’ that can affect our brain heath and influence our risk of getting dementia. These risk factors include lack of physical activity, lack of social contact, depression, heart disease and brain injury.
At the heart of World Rugby’s campaign is an educational video featuring leading independent experts Professor Craig Ritchie (Professor of the Psychiatry of Ageing at the University of Edinburgh & Director, Brain Health Scotland), Professor Willie Stewart (Consultant Neuropathologist at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow), Dr Fiona Wilson (Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin) and Karen BK Chan (Emotional literacy expert). The video describes how former and current players can use what we know about the 12 modifiable risk factors of dementia to optimise their brain health. The videos also provide information on where players should go if they have concerns about their brain health.
Professor Craig Ritchie said: “Long-term cognitive health is extremely complex, and dementia isn’t necessarily a consequence of one factor. It is important for those involved in the game to understand that by prioritising good brain health, it is possible to reduce the risk of developing dementia and other degenerative brain conditions. Rugby players, past and present, can make moves such as maintaining good health and fitness, and tackling stress, anxiety and depression to help reduce certain risk factors, while the sport continues to prioritise reducing the risk of head impacts for players at all levels and stages of the game.”
The new video resource forms part of World Rugby’s wider commitment to brain health that will also include support for free brain health clinics where former players will be able to access expert consultation, advice and clinical assessment. This approach aims to identify the causes of symptoms that former players may have, while identifying new ways to improve brain health within the sport. The long-term goal will be to create role models for younger players starting out on their own rugby journey, while providing wider, valuable support to communities beyond the game.
Professor Willie Stewart said “This is incredibly important work from World Rugby that will undoubtedly benefit the global game and broader sport.
“While progress is being made to reduce risk for current and future players through changes to training and gameplay, it is important that the brain health of former players is not overlooked. This initiative highlights the importance of our brain health and the measures we can all take to try and reduce our risk of dementia.”
World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “We care deeply about every member of our rugby family, and constantly strive to safeguard and support our players. We have consistently acted on evolving science and evidence to advance player welfare for all.
“I’ve been saddened by the recent, brave accounts of former players about their experiences. As a former player myself, I appreciate that some players may be worried about their brain health. We must, and are, putting those players at the heart of our welfare plans. Good brain health is much wider than what happens on the field, and we have more control over it than you would think. It is about creating community, starting conversations and building an understanding of how we all can make lifestyle changes that can positively impact our long-term wellbeing. At the same time, we will not sit still in evolving our game to ensure its best protects those playing it.
“By providing accessible video resources and high-quality care and support through the establishment of brain health clinics around the world, we can better educate members of our rugby family – whether they’re newcomers, established club players, professionals nearing the end of their career or retirees – on what can be a complex and daunting topic. I hope that, like myself, players engage with our Brain Health Initiative to help them thrive and perform, both in rugby and everyday life outside.”
Head of Strategic Projects and Research at International Rugby Players Sene Naoupu added: “We are working hard on concussion management, both in terms of injury prevention as well as the ongoing support of players throughout their lives. There’s no doubt that the development of brain clinics in our major rugby playing regions is a big step in the right direction – an initiative that we’ve worked alongside World Rugby on. Looking ahead, we seek to continue to improve the offering to retired players, ensuring that those in need feel looked after in every way possible.”
The new initiative builds on World Rugby’s six-point player welfare strategy, which has focus areas including aftercare for former players, innovation led by science and research, a wide suite of educational initiatives and open engagement with the rugby family.
The World Rugby Medical Commission Conference invites medics, researchers, sports scientists, players and coaches to a programme of webinars, workshops and panels aimed at furthering player welfare ‘best practice’ across all 128 member unions.