Sport’s dementia crisis – pioneering code put racing ahead of the pack


Pioneering code put racing ahead of the pack when it comes to the protection of stars from dementia

  • Racing is ahead of the curve when it comes to head injuries and concussion
  • Dementia diagnosis with ex-jockeys is not out of sync with the wider population
  • Jockeys have a screening every two years and a an independent medical exam
  • Racing is also involved and helping to fund many research projects to learn more

The world has had its eyes opened to the various head injury neglect in sport.  

However, racing is ahead of the curve when it comes to head injuries and concussion.

So what exactly is the situation in horse racing? Sportsmail delves deeper..

WHAT ARE THE CASES?

The risk of head injury in equine sport has meant for many years racing has been ahead of the curve on concussion.

Dr Michael Turner, a former BHA chief medical adviser, has been — and continues to be — one of the foremost researchers into the concussion in sport and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head.

The protocols Turner put in place for racing in the 1990s are largely still followed, according to his successor Dr Jerry Hill.

Racing is ahead of the curve when it comes to head injuries and concussion diagnosis 

Surprisingly for a sport considered so high risk, dementia diagnosis among ex-jockeys in old age does not seem out of sync with the wider population. But much of that evidence is anecdotal.

Dr Rowena Mobbs, neurologist in dementia and concussion at Macquarie University in Sydney, is studying up to 100 retired sportspeople and says her early findings show jockeys ‘carry a substantial risk of CTE’.

However, it does seem some individuals appear more susceptible, with a seemingly soft fall causing concussion.

In fact, fall rates in both Flat and Jump racing have fallen in the last 20 years. But while the incidence of concussion in Jump racing has fallen from two per 100 falls (1992-2000) to just under one per 100 falls (2012-2018), in Flat racing concussion rates have increased from three per 100 falls to 12 per 100 falls over the same period.

These numbers could be because of better diagnostic techniques following the introduction of trackside screening in 2002 but racing’s challenge in tackling the dangers and the effects of concussion remains.

Grand National winner Liam Treadwell was kept from riding for six months due to a head injury

Grand National winner Liam Treadwell was kept from riding for six months due to a head injury

Grand National winning jockey Liam Treadwell, who died in June aged 34, had suffered depression and mood changes linked to blows to his head. In 2016 he was unconscious for four minutes after a fall at Bangor. It left him with headaches, short-term memory loss and problems with concentration. It kept him from riding for six months.

Talking about his experience on a film produced by JETS, the Jockeys Education and Training Scheme, Treadwell said: ‘It was like a roller-coaster of emotion. It was almost as if it wasn’t up to me whether I was in a good mood or a bad mood. I almost knew it was happening but couldn’t control it. It got to the point where I wanted to become a recluse.’

His inquest is due to re-open in February.

WHAT IS BEING DONE?

All fallers are required to be assessed for concussion. If you are diagnosed with concussion, you must have six clear days off. Complete physical and mental rest is advised and that includes not watching TV or looking at a computer screen.

Jockeys undergo baseline screening every two years and have an independent medical evaluation after a concussion to decide when they can return.

It is a carefully regulated and scientifically based return-to-play protocol and jockeys are assessed by a consultant neurologist and neuro-psychologist.

All fallers are required to be assessed for concussion and must have six clear days off

All fallers are required to be assessed for concussion and must have six clear days off 

They receive income replacement pay during stand-down and money to replace their damaged helmet.

All are offered — and most take up — supervised rehabilitation with the Injured Jockeys Fund with vestibular — or balance — assessment and rehabilitation under the IJF physios.

It is possible for a jockey to return race riding seven days after a concussion but 20 per cent of them seeking this will not have returned to their baseline and will be stood down on medical grounds for a further 10-14 days.

WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE?

Research and education. Racing is involved and helping to fund several research projects. They include PhD studies at Bath University into ‘Defining The Jockey Athlete’. This is looking at factors to sustain a career in racing with a range of issues including concussion.

Racing is also one of the sports involved in an Oxford University study of retired athletes.

Former jump jockeys Bob Champion (above) agreed to donate his brains to their research

Former jump jockeys Bob Champion (above) agreed to donate his brains to their research

Education is vital in stopping jockeys not taking bangs on the head seriously. This can be an issue in a sport where most jockeys are self-employed freelances, reluctant to give up opportunities. Basically being too brave for their own good.

Dr Turner’s research continues with well-known former jump jockeys Bob Champion, a Grand National winner, and jockey-turned-broadcaster Richard Pitman agreeing to donate their brains to research. The hope is this could show why susceptibility to concussion varies.

Turner said: ‘We are cautiously optimistic that we can produce some decent results in the very near future. But what is certain is we need to keep learning.’



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