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Australian Footballer Is First Female Athlete to Receive Diagnosis of CTE
  • Posted July 5, 2023

Australian Footballer Is First Female Athlete to Receive Diagnosis of CTE

Heather Anderson, a star Australian rules football player who died last November, is the first female professional athlete to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

"She is the first female athlete diagnosed with CTE, but she will not be the last," researchers wrote in a paper published Friday. Anderson was 28 when she died from what was believed to be suicide.

CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head impacts, like those suffered when heading a ball in soccer (football).

The finding was made possible after Anderson's family donated her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank, hoping to discover "whether a lifetime of exposure to repetitive head trauma contributed to her death," according to a report co-written by one of the researchers. It was published on a nonprofit academic news site, The Conversation.

Dr. Michael Buckland, director of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, identified low-stage CTE when conducting the postmortem analysis.

“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,” said Buckland in a news release from the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in the United States.

Although women athletes previously had not been diagnosed with CTE, evidence suggests women are more susceptible to concussions in sports than men, according to the researchers.

“Contact sports in which head injuries occur commonly" are "historically male dominated," which "likely underlies the strong male bias in CTE prevalence to date,” according to the report, which was cited by NBC News.

Experts called for accelerated research on CTE in women.

“Research shows women have an equal or greater susceptibility to concussion in contact sports, but we don't yet know what that means for their risk of developing CTE,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-founder and medical director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

“We urgently need to accelerate research on CTE in women so we can prevent future cases, better understand how CTE impacts their behavior and cognition, and treat those who develop symptoms,” Cantu said in a foundation news release.

Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, called this a “wakeup 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,” Nowinski said.

Symptoms associated with the condition include issues with walking and balance, trouble thinking, memory loss and behavioral changes, such as impulsive behavior and aggression. Depression, apathy, substance misuse and suicidal thoughts or behavior are others, according to Boston University, a pioneer in CTE research.

Anderson played football from age 5, and played contact sports for 18 years, including rugby, researchers reported. She also served in the military for nine years and participated in amateur martial arts for three years, NBC News reported.

"She had suffered one diagnosed concussion, with four other possible concussions not formally diagnosed but suspected by family," the report said.

Anderson's death continues to be investigated, but “due to the circumstances surrounding the death, it is suspected the woman died by way of suicide,” the paper said.

“While there are insufficient data to draw conclusions on any association between CTE and manner of death, suicide deaths are not uncommon in the cohorts where CTE is sought at autopsy,” researchers said in their report.

Her family did not see signs of depression or unusual behavior in the months prior to her death, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

To date, there have only been a handful of CTE cases reported in women, and none have been former athletes, the foundation noted.

More information

The Alzheimer's Association has more on CTE.

SOURCES: NBC News, July 4, 2023, and Concussion Legacy Foundation, July 3, 2023

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