Suggested link between concussions and dementia


There are calls for more research into possible links between rugby concussions and dementia.

It follows revelations that five men from a single Ranfurly Shield-winning rugby team have been diagnosed with the illness.

Neil Wolfe has a long career to reminisce about, including six Tests for the All Blacks.

But his memory isn't what it used to be. He has dementia and his wife Raewyn attributes it to the number of knocks he got on the field.

"In my first Test I was playing and I got knocked out. I must have been out for about quarter of an hour, but I got up and was playing, but I played unconscious," Mr Wolfe says.

In fact he didn't even know where he was until he asked at half time.

In those days there was a different attitude. Injured players kept going because there were no replacements.

Mr Wolfe is one of five players in the Taranaki shield side of 1964 to get dementia.

Professor of biostatistics Thomas Lumley says there's less than a one in 10,000 chance of that happening, but he says it's not proof of a link between concussion and dementia.

"This on its own, I don't think would be enough to say that, but since we know that, for example from American Football, that there really is a risk, that combined with these numbers should make us concerned," he says.

The issue's topical with the recent release of the movie Concussion, in which Will Smith plays a forensic pathologist taking on the NFL.

The Rugby Union (NZRU) says it recognises the risks between concussions and long-term issues and has made strides to improve safety.

"We now take players off the field for 10 minutes if there's any suspicion they've got a concussion in the professional game," says Dr Ian Murphy, NZRU medical director.

"At the community level if there's any suspicion we remove that player and they do a graduated return to play over a number of weeks."

For the Wolfes, they're getting on with life, but they hope further research can be done and lessons learned for future players.