Mar 07, 2023

Link between concussion and early onset dementia looms for contact sports

Link between concussion and early onset dementia looms for contact sports(1)

Receiving a dementia diagnosis is life-changing, but when you’re a healthy man in your early 40s, the impact is even greater. And that’s exactly what happened to former rugby union player, Michael Lipman.

Mr Lipman was diagnosed with early onset dementia, and after more than 30 concussions during his playing career, he also believes he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – brain degeneration caused by repeated head trauma.

Speaking to Sky News host, Erin Moylan, Mr Lipman said the dementia diagnosis and ongoing memory challenges have already impacted his life.

“This disease is like a ticking timebomb, you never know when it’s going to come. It’s pretty soul destroying, you go through a whole identity crisis, a huge shift in who you are as a person,” explained Mr Lipman.

“Your employment status, you’re walking around with a huge banner above your head saying ‘I’ve got dementia’.

“Every day’s a different day… full of emotion and you have to work out what makes you happy my family, my wife, making sure I can do the best I can around the house. 

“She has to take on two jobs just to keep us afloat and it is really hard.”

The 43-year-old has previously talked about short-term memory loss which affects himself, his wife and their two kids. Something as simple as picking them up from school or driving to the train station is now a difficult task.

“How it’s impacting my family and what the future holds is the scariest thing,” Mr Lipman said.

“It scares the hell out of me. My son has just turned four and my daughter is almost 11. 

“They don’t even understand the word dementia. Explaining that to them later in life is going to be difficult but I’ve accepted it now.”

Altogether, an estimated 28,000 Aussies are believed to be living with early onset dementia, and that’s expected to increase to more than 42,000 people by 2058. 

CTE numbers are harder to determine as the neurodegenerative condition cannot be officially diagnosed until after death. The disease leads to dementia and cognitive decline, alongside symptoms such as aggression, depression, and loss of impulse control.

Former Australian Football League (AFL) players Shane Tuck and Danny Frawley, and rugby league player Paul Green, were diagnosed with CTE following their deaths.

Mr Lipman is currently part of a group of rugby players diagnosed with early onset dementia that have launched a class action lawsuit against World Rugby, the international governing body for the sport. 

They argue World Rugby failed to take reasonable steps to protect players from concussion-related injuries.

Closer to home, the Australian Football League (AFL) could find itself in court as it faces its own class action from players who have experienced serious concussions and head injuries. 

Mr Lipman said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more cases like this in the future. 

“I reckon there’s so many people out there that are silently suffering that played between the 1970s to the early 2000s that are crippled with some form of mental health issue,” Mr Lipman said.

“But they’re silently suffering because they’re too scared to go and get tested because they don’t want to be seen as a weaker man. They don’t want to be vulnerable.

“I’d love to see the stigma surrounding concussion, particularly males in contact sports, [go away], really diving in and being brutally honest with themselves after a concussion.”

The National Rugby League (NRL) has been in the spotlight this week as coaches criticised the League’s concussion policy that removed players from the game following head knocks. 

“Our policy says that we have a combination of a club doctor on the field and an independent doctor using technology – both looking for potential head injury events,” NRL Chief Executive Andrew Abdo told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Not concussion, head injury events. We make no apology for our policy. We have a good, strong policy, and we’re not going to take a backward step on it.”

While the class action against World Rugby continues, Mr Lipman takes living with dementia day by day. 

“The number one thing you need to make sure you do is to have some routines,” he said.

“Whether it be going for a fish, running, walking, coffee with someone or by yourself, read the paper, find the thing that’s going to make you feel good from the very start of the day and that will set you up.”

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