Australian researchers have diagnosed what is believed to be the first professional woman athlete with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Scientists at the Sydney-based Australian Sports Brain Bank research centre said on Monday they had identified low-stage CTE in the brain of former professional Australian Rules footballer Heather Anderson, who died eight months ago, aged 28.
Only a small number of women globally have been diagnosed with CTE, which is caused by repeated impact to the head, and ASBB director Michael Buckland said none of them had been athletes.
Chris Nowinski, chief executive of the US-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, said Anderson’s “landmark” diagnosis should be a “wakeup call for women’s sports”.
“We can prevent CTE by preventing repeated impacts to the head, and we must begin a dialogue with leaders in women’s sports today so we can save future generations of female athletes from suffering.”
Buckland said he was in no doubt Anderson had suffered from the debilitating disease, which has been found in numerous male athletes involved in contact sport.
“There were multiple CTE lesions as well as abnormalities nearly everywhere I looked in her cortex. It was indistinguishable from the dozens of male cases I’ve seen,” Buckland said.
“I want to thank the Anderson family for generously donating Heather’s brain and hope more families follow in their footsteps so we can advance the science to help future athletes.”
Anderson, 28, a former army medic whose cause of death is subject to a coronial investigation but is suspected to be suicide, played contact sport from the age of five.
She retired in 2017 after winning a premiership with the Adelaide Crows in the top-flight women’s Australian Football League competition.
Her injury-plagued sports career included at least one confirmed concussion and prompted her to play with a protective helmet.
Nowinski said research shows women have equal or greater susceptibility to concussion in contact sports but it is still unclear if they are more at risk of developing CTE.
Researchers anticipate more female athletes will be diagnosed with CTE as their participation in contact sports grows.
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