Ex-international rugby players are twice as likely to get dementia and three times as likely to end up with Parkinson’s, according to new research.

And that’s not all – playing at the top level boosts the risk of motor neurone disease by 15 times, analysis of three decades’ worth of data from Scotland has found.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, saw 412 former male Scottish internationals looked at, their histories compared to 1236 members of the public. 


While the rugby players typically lived longer, their chance of being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease was more than twice as high.

It didn’t matter what position they played in – backs, usually faster and more nimble, were just as at risk as forwards, who spend much of their time crashing into opposition players. 

“Overall, these findings support the idea that repetitive head injury is a risk factor for a range of neurodegenerative diseases,” said Helen Murray of the University of Auckland Centre for Brain Research, who wasn’t involved in the study. 

“The findings of this study emphasise the importance of developing strategies to reduce exposure to head impacts in training and games and to be cautious in our approach to head injury management and return to play.”


The researchers didn’t have access to each players’ concussion history.

Patria Hume, a professor of human performance at the Auckland University of Technology, said it added to the growing evidence “collision sports” aren’t good for the brain regardless. 

“The repeated findings of brain health issues in former rugby players in the NZ RugbyHealth and UK RugbyHealth studies, and now in this Scotland study, are adding weight to the call for reduction in risk factors for brain diseases – including repeated head impacts in sport.”

Researchers noted that more effort has been made in recent years to “improve the detection of concussion injuries and to reduce the risks during match play”.

“However, head impact exposures and concussion risk are not isolated to match play,” they said, “As such, measures to reduce exposures in training might also be considered a priority…


“In the meantime, strategies to reduce exposure to head impacts and head injuries across all sports should continue to be developed and promoted, while measures to mitigate risk of adverse brain health in former athletes should be considered.”