An Australian rules footballer has become the first female athlete to be diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease CTE in a landmark finding for women’s sport.
Heather Anderson, who played for Adelaide in the Australian Football League Women’s competition, took her own life in November 2022 aged 28.
Researchers at the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB), co-founded by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, have since diagnosed Anderson as having had low-stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and three lesions in her brain.
The condition, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, can cause memory loss, depression and violent mood swings.
It has been found in athletes, combat veterans, and others who have sustained repeated head trauma.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation has said Anderson is the first female athlete to be found to have had CTE.
Michael Buckland, director of the ASBB, said: “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.”
On Tuesday, Mr Buckland told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the diagnosis was a step toward understanding the impact years of playing contact sport has on women’s brains.
He said: “While we’ve been finding CTE in males for quite some time, I think this is really the tip of the iceberg and it’s a real red flag that now women are participating (in contact sport) just as men are, that we are going to start seeing more and more CTE cases in women.”
Mr Buckland co-authored a report on his findings with neurologist Alan Pearce.
“Despite the fact that we know that women have greater rates of concussion, we haven’t actually got any long-term evidence until now,” Mr Pearce said.
“So this is a highly significant case study.”
Anderson had at least one diagnosed concussion while playing eight games during Adelaide’s premiership-winning season in 2017. She had played rugby league and Aussie rules, starting in contact sports at the age of five.
She retired from the professional Australian Football League Women’s competition after the 2017 season because of a shoulder injury before returning to work as an army medic.
Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO Chris Nowinski said: “The first case of CTE in a female athlete should be a wake-up 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.”
Mr Buckland thanked the family for donating Anderson’s brain and said he hopes “more families follow in their footsteps so we can advance the science to help future athletes”.
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There’s been growing awareness and research into CTE in sports since 2013, when the National Football League in the United States settled lawsuits – at a cost at the time of $765 million – from thousands of former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems.
In July 2017, a report found 99% of all NFL players were found to have CTE – with 110 of 111 players found to have the condition.
However, the report, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on the brains of deceased people donated to a Boston brain bank. The results did not suggest CTE is common to all American football players.
In March this year, a study conducted by researchers in Sweden found soccer players are one and a half times more likely to develop dementia than the general populations. The study did not look at CTE.
Meanwhile, a University of Glasgow study in October 2022 found former international rugby players are at a much higher risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease.
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