A discussion with Professor Alan Pearce
We discussed our data findings with the Director of NeuroSports Labs and Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University, Professor Alan Pearce, to further understand how life expectancy and playing elite level sport intertwines. In particular, we wanted him to help us understand whether our findings in the table above are supported by scientific evidence.
Professor Pearce is a neuroscientist with over 20 years’ experience, here’s what he had to say about the results.
On the link between boxing and lower life expectancy…
“When it comes to boxing, it’s likely that this data reflects an effect of the accumulation of multiple bodily injuries, particularly impacts to the brain, during competitive boxing over their lifetime. We certainly now understand the long-lasting, detrimental effects of repetitive impacts to the brain, with previous research dating back to 1928 in boxers. There’s no doubt that repetitive head knocks are associated with cognitive impairment, early onset dementia, and therefore contributing to reduced life expectancy.”
Can you speak to the 13-year disparity between boxers and tennis players?
“It’s not surprising given the characteristics of the sports (contact vs non-contact), and the accumulation of repetitive trauma, not only to the brain which increases the risk of dementia and other neurogenerative diseases, but also physical trauma from repeated impacts to the body from boxing leading to less mobility later in life through osteoarthritis which can affect cardiovascular health also.”
What measures need to be taken to mitigate head trauma in certain sports?
“We will never be able to mitigate head trauma in combat and contact sports, so adults who wish to participate have to fully understand and accept the risk of playing these sports. However, we can reduce the exposure of trauma and this is starting to happen now. We are seeing this in the UK with the banning of headers in children’s soccer up to the age of 12, limiting of heading in training at the elite levels, and there is a push to modify football codes to being fully non-contact up to the age of 14.”
Will head knocks affect the future of sports?
“While sports are good for our physical health, some sports do have some elements of risk. However, as long as adults who play these sports understand the risks, and they’re not downplayed, then we should allow these sports to continue. Most importantly, it’s paramount we foster a culture that treats brain injuries as serious and that players need to fully recover before returning to play.”