An Australian has become the first professional female athlete to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain injuries. It can cause severe mental health issues, and has been found across the world in former athletes who have died by suicide.
The incurable disease can, so far, only be diagnosed post-mortem.
Who was Heather Anderson?
Heather Anderson played for the Adelaide Crows as part of their AFLW premiership-winning team in 2017.
After one season, Anderson was forced into retirement by injuries. She died suddenly last year, aged 28.
The Anderson family donated Heather’s brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank to shed light on the circumstances leading to her death.
Researchers at the Australian Sports Brain Bank analysed Anderson’s brain and discovered that she had “low-stage” CTE.
CTE has historically been studied in male athletes, in part due to the male-dominated nature of some contact sports.
Heather Anderson’s concussion injuries:
Anderson suffered at least one diagnosed concussion during her playing career, though four other possible concussions were not formally diagnosed.
She played contact sports for most of her life, including AFL and rugby league.
Anderson had also served in the Australian military and partook in amateur martial arts. No concussions were reported from these activities.
Women in sport:
Researchers said Anderson’s diagnosis could suggest a wider presence of CTE in female professional athletes, who are more susceptible to concussions than their male counterparts.
They said as the number of women in professional sports expands, it “seems likely” that more cases of CTE will emerge.
The researchers warned of an “urgent need” to understand concussion risks in female contact sports. They also called for to add specific strategies that will protect female athletes to be added to professional sports.
A separate group of AFL and AFLW players are suing over the long-term effects of concussion injuries sustained during their careers.
They allege the AFL failed to proactively prevent continual concussions, and did not add sufficient measures to stop head injuries from occurring.
Following the lawsuit, the AFL began a 10-year long-term study to investigate the impacts of concussion injuries in the game.
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