Just one serious concussion can damage memory and brain power in later life, major new research has revealed. In the largest of its kind, Oxford University researchers found three or more moderate brain injuries can have a long-term impact on attention span, memory and the ability to complete complex tasks.
The study of more than 15,000 Brits people found the risk was cumulative – meaning the more times a person injures their brain, the worse their brain function could be as they age.
The findings will heap more pressure on rugby governing bodies, already facing a class-action lawsuit from former professional and amateur players over their historical handling of concussions and brain injuries.
The study of more than 15,000 Brits people found the risk was cumulative – meaning the more times a person injures their brain, the worse their brain function could be as they age
Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Exeter studied data from the UK PROTECT study, which has followed people for up to 25 years.
Participants, aged 50 to 90, reported the severity and frequency of concussions experienced throughout their lives and completed annual, computerised tests for brain function.
It showed people who reported three or more traumatic brain injuries had significantly worse cognitive function, which got successively worse with each subsequent concussion after that.
Lead investigator Dr Vanessa Raymont, from the University of Oxford, said: ‘We know head injuries are a major risk factor for dementia.
‘And this large-scale study gives the greatest detail to date on a stark finding — the more times you injure your brain in life, the worse your brain function could be as you age.
‘Our research indicates that people who have experienced three or more even mild episodes of concussion should be counselled on whether to continue high-risk activities.
‘We should also encourage organisations operating in areas where head impact is more likely to consider how they can protect their athletes or employees.’
The team found participants who reported three episodes of even mild concussion throughout their lives had significantly worse attention and ability to complete complex tasks.
Those who had four or more mild concussion episodes also showed worsened processing speed and working memory.
Each additional reported concussion was linked to progressively worse cognitive function, they found.
But even one moderate-to-severe concussion was associated with worsened attention, completion of complex tasks and processing speed capacity, according to the findings published in the Journal of Neurotrauma.
Experts suggest cognitive rehabilitation should focus on key functions such as attention and completion of complex tasks, which they found to be susceptible to long-term damage.
It comes less than a fortnight after the Rugby Football Union faced backlash after banning tackles above the waist at community level from July.
Designed to reduce concussions, critics argue the law was rushed through without consultation or sufficient evidence that it will drastically cut concussions in the sport.
Dr Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘Studies like this are so important in unravelling the long-term risks of traumatic brain injury, including their effect on dementia risk.
‘These findings should send a clear message to policy makers and sporting bodies, who need to put robust guidelines in place that reduce risk of head injury as much as possible.’