MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Researchers have identified a crippling brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head in an Australian Rules footballer for the first time, a report in a medical journal outlined on Wednesday.
Former Geelong Cats player Graham “Polly” Farmer, who died aged 84 in August, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by doctors at the Australian Sports Brain Bank, Acta Neuropathologica Communications said.
CTE causes a type of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s, which is characterised by behavioural changes, confusion and memory loss, has been found in players from several contact sports.
Currently the disease can only be diagnosed after death, since brain tissues have to be removed and analysed.
The indigenous code of Australian Rules football is a high-impact sport in which players seldom wear any head protection and instances of concussion are common.
The top flight Australian Football League (AFL) is hugely popular in the nation’s southern states.
Farmer played over 350 games of A-grade football over a 20-year career from 1952-1971 and is regarded one of the sport’s all-time greats.
He played as a ruckman, the position for tall players who leap and contest for the ball when it is bounced or thrown up by the umpire at stoppages.
Farmer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1999.
A number of former AFL players have complained of a range of symptoms associated with brain damage, ranging from dramatic mood swings to memory loss.
Influential player agent Peter Jess, who has threatened to launch a class action against the AFL from players with brain health problems, said Farmer’s diagnosis was likely to be followed by more.
“It’s only of late that we’ve got the facility to harvest brains to confirm that because unfortunately the only way that you can find out whether CTE exists or not is post-mortem,” he told Fairfax media.
“Now that people are conscious we will get more and more of this generation donating their brain and hopefully the next generation.”
The AFL, which has yet to respond to a request for comment by Reuters, has acknowledged in the past that “neurodegenerative disease is associated with head trauma”.
The league has implemented a slew of measures to protect players from head injuries in recent years, cracking down on head-high tackles and enforcing stiffer penalties.
But instances of concussion have been rising, according to AFL data.
There were 74 concussion-related injuries in the 2018 season, up from 63 recorded in the previous season, the AFL reported last year in its most recent injury study.
Farmer’s diagnosis follows confirmation of CTE in two Australian former professional rugby league players by the same researchers last year, the nation’s first recorded diagnoses in the sport.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford