Champion footballer Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer has become the first Aussie rules player to be diagnosed with a chronic brain disease linked to the trauma of repeated blows to the head.
In a landmark study released Thursday morning, researchers have warned of the “distinct” risks AFL players face compared to those of other football codes, as they confirmed scans of Farmer’s brain show he suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Farmer, a skilled ruck man widely hailed a revolutionary of the game, died aged 84 in August last year. His death followed a long battle with dementia.
A study released in Acta Neuropathologica Communications has revealed further details about the VFL legend’s decline.
“At age 64 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), with accompanying personality change, depression and anger/aggression issues around this time,” researchers wrote.
“He had been diagnosed with REM sleep behaviour disorder several years prior to his presumptive AD diagnosis.”
Farmer was plagued by memory loss, rapidly worsening towards the end of his life.
His brain was donated to the recently established Australian Sports Brain Bank. The family of one other former Aussie rules player has also donated to the brain bank, though the results of their scans have not been released.
CTE is a neurodegenerative disease found to occur to people who have suffered repeated concussions.
In 2005, the first case report of CTE in a National Football League player led a large number of retired American footballers confirming they were suffering symptoms of the disease.
CTE is now reported in ex-players of other contact sports, including ice hockey, soccer, rugby union, and most recently in Australian rugby league.
A diagnosis can only be made after someone dies.
The findings about Farmer’s brain are the first time scientists have been able to officially link Australian rules football to CTE.
They stressed that head trauma was currently the only known causal factor for CTE. Ruling out other health factors, they noted Farmer did not drink, smoke or use drugs.
“(Aussie rules) is the most popular contact sport in Australia, with a player base of more than 1.5 million, and a significant (30 per cent) female representation,” the study noted.
“(Aussie rules) is characterised by its fast-paced physicality: it involves running at speed, frequent jumping, and high-impact landing.”
While researchers noted they could not draw a clear link between AFL code and CTE from only one confirmed case, they noted the sport’s high-force collisions and concussion rate.
“That it exists at all should serve as a call to action to recognise and research CTE, and the very clear association with repetitive head injury,” study authors wrote.
“Claims of a lack of demonstrated ‘causality’ are unhelpful, and arguably irrelevant when assessing a public and occupational health issue such as CTE.”
The study was written by researchers from La Trobe University, the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, the University of Sydney and Macquarie University.
- Read the full findings here