Amateur Boxers Face a Higher Risk of Dementia and Earlier Onset of Symptoms, Study Finds

Boxing is a very physical sport that can lead to bodily harm, as well as harm to the brain. Blows to the head have been linked with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in professional boxers, much like American football, ice hockey, and rugby players. CTE has been associated with dementia, as well. A new study finds that amateur boxers may also face a higher risk of dementia and develop it at an earlier age.

A team of researchers at Cardiff University examined a study that followed more than 1,000 Welsh men over a period of 35 years. They found that men who had participated in amateur boxing when they were younger developed dementia at a much higher rate than those who had not, and that the age of onset was also substantially sooner. The results were published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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Peter Elwood, lead author and professor at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, says, “Professional boxing is known to cause chronic traumatic brain injury, but there has been little to no long-term research on this issue in amateur boxing.

“Our study therefore provides some of the best available evidence suggesting that amateur boxing is associated with clinically measurable long-term brain injury, manifested as earlier onset Alzheimer’s-like impairment.”

To conduct their research, the team turned to the Caerphilly Cohort Study, which followed men from Caerphilly, South Wales, from 1979 to 2014. At the beginning of the study, all the participants were between the ages of 45 and 59. Every five years, they had follow-up appointments, in which data were gathered on their lifestyle and behavior, health and activities, and diseases they’d developed. They also underwent cognitive tests.

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Of 1,123 men who participated, 73 said they’d boxed seriously in their youth. A third of the men in this group showed signs of cognitive impairment between the ages of 75 and 89, compared with about a fifth of men who had not boxed. In addition to developing symptoms at a higher rate, the former boxers developed them an average of almost five years earlier.

Despite the relatively small sample size of 73, the team believes their work illustrates the cognitive health risks of amateur boxers.

Elwood says, “Millions of people are affected by dementia and the links between this devastating disease and certain types of contact sport are only now starting to come to light.

“Further research in this area is vital so that we can bring in simple measures now to protect the health of generations to come.”

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The team says their findings suggest it may be a good idea to consider a ban on blows to the head in amateur boxing.

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