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Rugby stars join dementia prevention study


One of Welsh rugby’s all-time greats, Shane Williams MBE, and former English World Cup winner Ben Kay MBE are among 50 former elite rugby players enrolling in the  University of Edinburgh study, led by Professor Craig Ritchie, Centre for Dementia Prevention.

The research – known as PREVENT: RFC – is funded by the Alzheimer’s Society and will look at whether elite rugby players show more early warning signs of dementia than the general population.


Previous research from the University of Glasgow has shown that professional footballers appear to be five times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.

However, much less is known about risks linked to rugby. By studying former players, researchers will assess if there are differences with the general population, and if so, whether these are associated with injuries that occurred during the players’ careers.

The number of people with dementia in the UK is set to rise to 1 million by 2025. Dementia places a huge strain on patients and families and has a cost of £34.7bn per year in the UK.

Although the symptoms of dementia occur in later life, changes in the brain happen many decades before, offering a window of opportunity to intervene before the disease takes hold.

The rugby study is an off-shoot of PREVENT – one of the world’s largest studies of the very earliest stages of neurodegenerative disease and the first to focus entirely on brain changes in mid-life.

By looking at lifestyle and biological factors in mid-life, the research team aims to find ways of detecting dementia before symptoms appear.

The 50 former players will join 700 people already enrolled in PREVENT. They will undergo assessments involving physical health checks, brain scans, memory assessments, lifestyle questionnaires and sample collections with follow-up checks after two years.

Professor Craig Ritchie, Professor of the Psychiatry of Ageing at the University of Edinburgh, Principal Investigator for PREVENT said; ” The PREVENT Dementia Programme seeks to identify the earliest stages of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease at a point when they could be halted or even reversed. The addition of a cohort of former elite athletes to this programme will allow us to look for issues specific to that group with a view to minimising all players’ risk of developing dementia in the future.”

PREVENT:RFC is part of the Alzheimer’s Society’s Sport United Against Dementia campaign.

It will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, Imperial College London, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

Ben Kay MBE, retired international rugby union player and PREVENT:RFC participant added; ” It was really important to me as a rugby player to take part in this study. There has been a lot of media coverage around this topic lately and as a result, I know lots of players are worried about their dementia risk. Hopefully, by doing this research now, we can get a better understanding of this issue and make a real difference for the future.”

Dr Richard Oakley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society said; ” This is a desperately needed, exciting world-class research study looking to answer questions around brain health in elite rugby players. There’s been a lot of attention focused on sports players who’ve developed dementia, and that’s raised important questions about whether playing sports like football and rugby increases the risk of developing the condition. While we’re seeing some evidence of a potential link, the latest findings don’t explain why sports players may be at a greater risk of developing dementia.”

The University’s Centre for Dementia Prevention, based on Edinburgh BioQuarter combines research in science, medicine and social sciences to lead global efforts in preventing dementia.