Post No.: 0784
There is ongoing research in the area of contact sports that involve impacts to the head – like boxing, kickboxing, rugby, and even repeatedly heading balls in football/soccer – when it comes to the risks of concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the link with developing dementia and other significant mental health conditions.
CTE is a progressive brain condition that’s thought to be caused by repeated episodes of concussion or blows to the head. The biggest problem with it isn’t necessarily about experiencing any immediate symptoms but about any kind of damage to the brain up to the smallest levels of its structure as a result of a physical impact or repeated impacts, whereby the serious symptoms may only become apparent with a delayed effect that takes perhaps days or possibly even several years to manifest.
The immediate effects can be dizziness, disorientation, confusion or headaches. One might then later experience memory loss, poor judgement or social instability. At an even more advanced stage, one might exhibit dementia, movement disorders, speech impediments, depression and suicidality.
A clear diagnosis of CTE is only currently possible via an autopsy. And with such delayed effects, it’s often hard to know, if one does develop, let’s say, dementia, Parkinson’s disease or motor neurone disease (MND) later in life, whether one would’ve gotten it anyway, and so soon, had one’s head not got knocked about so much earlier in life. And with any minor effects, such as a slight deterioration of memory, it’s often hard to even know whether one has any symptoms at all. And of course if one’s brain is compromised, it’s hard for one’s compromised brain to work out whether one’s brain has been compromised (similar to how a drunk person, for having a brain that’s befuddled by the alcohol, is going to be a poor judge of whether she/he is drunk or not). But certainly the risks increase with every additional blow to the head.
Not too long ago, many sportspeople took the attitude of ‘carry on unless a limb has fallen off’ (well probably not literally) but we’re more knowledgeable nowadays. It’s not about stopping people playing sports because there are still a multitude of health benefits for playing sports – including contact sports – but about making such sports safer. If your brain has changed then you have changed. If your brain has gone then you have gone. So it’s serious stuff. (From a philosophical perspective, will you even be the same person if your personality has fundamentally changed as a result of brain damage?) A concussion will change your brain in a chaotic way too – like knocking a sandcastle will far more likely knock it into an ungainly heap rather than into a better-looking or neater structure.
So players young and older must understand the long-term risks from concussion for they might want to hide their symptoms due to the fear of getting sidelined for admitting to them when they want to carry on playing. It’s not a weakness to admit to being injured when one is. No cure yet exists for CTE, and there isn’t a foreseeable one on the horizon either.
Wearing safety equipment, such as scrum caps in rugby, therefore sound sensible. Yet they might not help if people just end up going harder into the tackles as a result. So sporting bodies must find ways to make sports like rugby, boxing, American football and the like safer without ruining their sports or bringing about unintended consequences. Rule changes have been and are being proposed as a means of prevention. Some sporting bodies around the world now ban children from heading balls in football, at least during training. And some top-tier leagues limit the number of headers per week in training. The most progress so far has been in the area of taking a more precautionary approach to head contact incidents, such as return-to-play protocols, and the recognition and treatment of the symptoms of concussion or head trauma.
Dementia is not always an inevitable part of growing older. Although genes play a key role, it isn’t 100% genetic, as we’ve seen with CTE and sports that involve a lot of hits to the head. Depression is a risk factor but regular exercise can help reduce the risk, as can not smoking, not drinking heavily, preventing hypertension and preventing diabetes. (It’s often pondered why smoking, drinking too much alcohol or eating too much junk food, or similar, isn’t a form of self-harm too? Is the only difference down to how immediate, or socially acceptable, something is?)
Many kinds of mental health problems are devastating not only for the individuals involved but also for their fluffy families. But dementia is arguably a condition that is particularly devastating for families because people with dementia don’t perceive their own errors, so when they’re told they’re wrong, it can be highly frustrating and infuriating for them – they might therefore react aggressively towards their own loving family and friends who point out their mistakes. And then eventually, they may not recognise their family members at all and will call them by other names, and be generally confused about a lot of things. This can be upsetting for those close to them because it’s like they are already gone, and this state can be the last memory they will have with that person.
The media did once pump out headlines claiming that obese people are correlated with lower incidences of dementia and some other syndromes or diseases. But what most likely happened was that, because BMI was used as the measure of obesity, and because fit and muscular people can have high BMI numbers too (muscle is denser than fat), these fit but ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ people were systematically skewing the results. (We often get click-bait headlines – the utmost priority for profit-led mass media sources isn’t to educate or be impartial but to generate clicks or sell papers i.e. to maximise profits.) The scientific and medical community overall does not recommend anyone being overweight or obese, or underweight, in a body-fat-ratio way.
In fact, as mentioned earlier, exercise is a highly recommended way to reduce one’s risk of developing dementia. A strong cardiovascular system will reduce your chances of developing one of the diseases that fall under the term ‘dementia’, like Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. And be aware that the potential onset doesn’t just happen when one reaches over 60 years old either – hence it’s best to gain and maintain a strong cardiovascular system as soon as possible in life. Women should also not wait until too late to regularly participate in resistance or weight-bearing exercises or activities, in order to minimise or slow the decrease in bone density that happens with age – and which happens faster in women than with men – that could lead to developing osteoporosis. Meow.
No time to exercise because you work (at a desk) a lot? Well physically exercise regularly to improve your cognitive performance and therefore efficiency and productivity at work! Go for intense but short, over light but long, exercises if time is scarce. Physical exercises – especially those that directly involve cognitive demands such as dancing – improve our cognitive skills, and often better than sedentary cognitive exercises such as word searches can. And bar the most brutal exercise sessions, or exercising too hard when we’re ill – the sensation that exercise ‘gives us the feeling of having more energy rather than fatigues us’ is near universal!
Dancing may be particularly good for our mental health. Dancing has music, and also coordinating with the music, and sometimes with a partner or group too. The ‘let’s go out tonight’ answer to forgetting our troubles for a moment is better if we go dancing rather than drinking. It’s good for all ages, including the elderly and those with dementia or Parkinson’s disease. (Read Post No.: 0430 if you want to know more about reducing the rate of your cognitive decline.) You may feel self-conscious about it but there are so many different styles to be able to find one that fits your personality and capabilities.
…So sports or activities that involve major and/or frequent blows to the head will increase the risk of developing dementia. Rates of CTE, which could later lead to dementia, have been found to be ~30% amongst those with a history of multiple head injuries. Yet regular sports and physical activities can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by perhaps ~30%; along with the other mental and physical health benefits they bring. It’s therefore about playing sports safely rather than not playing them at all.
Meow. If you are a contact sports fan – by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below – you can share what you think about preserving the tradition of a sport that’s been around for maybe decades versus protecting the welfare of its players to the utmost degree according to the findings in modern science. No activity can be 100% risk-free, so how far shall the sporting bodies go?