These are the symptoms of early onset dementia - and how it is linked to head injuries

A group of former professional rugby players have launched legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union for negligence.  

England Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, 42, and former Wales back-rower Alix Popham, 40, are part of the group of eight claiming that the sport’s governing bodies did not protect them from the risks of the game.

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Each player has been diagnosed with dementia under the age of 45 and say the disease has been caused by repeated blows to the head during their rugby careers.

So, what is early onset dementia, what symptoms should you look out for - and why are professional rugby players affected?

What is early onset dementia?

Dementia is the term used to describe a variety of symptoms affecting everyday life, including changes in mood, memory loss, thinking and behaviour. 

Usually, it is people over the age of 65 that are diagnosed, so any diagnosis before that age is known as “early onset dementia”.

Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, is one of the main causes of early onset dementia, according to Alzheimer’s UK.

The disease is known to be triggered by a build-up of proteins in the brain called “plaques”.

As it's a progressive disease, symptoms worsen over time as more parts of the brain become damaged.

What are the symptoms?

Early onset dementia can affect people differently, but there are some common first symptoms to look out for.

According to the NHS, these are:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks
  • Struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
  • Being confused about time and place
  • Mood changes

These symptoms can start mildly and gradually worsen. 

Early-onset dementia symptoms can be dismissed as something less serious in the first stages.

As the symptoms often aren’t severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia, you may be told you have “mild cognitive impairment” (MCI) first. 

Why are rugby players being diagnosed with dementia?

A study last year discovered that rugby and football players are six times more likely to have a degenerative brain disease called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE) which is caused by repeated blows to the head.

This could come from repetitive concussions caused by the amount of tackling and heavy contact involved in both training and games within the professional sport.

Steve Thompson, along with Alix Popham, are two professional rugby players to be diagnosed with early onset dementia with probable CTE.

Popham was diagnosed with the disease at 40 years old, whereas Thompson was 42. 

For 14 years, Popham was training three times a week in the UK and four times a week in France before playing a game each Saturday, which his doctor has said led to hundreds of thousands of sub-concussions. 

Thompson, who won 73 England caps, told The Guardian that he can’t even remember winning the 2003 World Cup game and also said he suffers panic attacks and forgets his wife's name.

He said the memory-loss symptoms seem to be getting worse with time.

Both Thompson and Popham are part of the first generation of players to play a full-time rugby union career after the game went professional in the mid-1990s. 

Along with the other players who are proposing the legal proceedings, they claim that the sport’s governing bodies have failed in their duty of care when it comes to the known risks of head injury when playing rugby. 

The players are calling for a reduction in the amount of contact in training, a reduction in tactical substitutions and measures to improve the detection of brain injury and the care of those that are injured.

The players’ lawyer, Richard Boardman, has said he is in touch with more than 100 players from rugby union and league who are reporting early onset dementia symptoms.

Is there a cure for dementia?

There is currently no cure for dementia but there has been huge progress made in understanding how different diseases, like Alzheimer’s, can cause brain damage.

With increased funding over the past few years, there are now more research studies and clinical trials taking place with promising advances.

Some possible areas of treatment include studying stem cells to see how brain damage can begin and be stopped, and immunotherapy, often used in cancer treatments, which involves boosting the body’s own defences to fight disease.

It is also thought that if people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s are diagnosed earlier on, before symptoms appear, treatments could slow down or even stop the disease.