With the consent of her family, the diagnosis was made on the brain of Heather Anderson, a 28-year-old AFLW athlete who died last November. Heather’s family donated her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank hoping to better understand why she died.
The findings, which Professor Alan Pearce co-authored with the Australian Sports Brain Bank, raise questions about how a lifetime of contact sport may have contributed to her death. They come as Australia’s Senate inquiry works on its report into concussions and repeated head trauma in contact sport, due in August.
Given how hard women have fought to participate in football codes and contact sports in recent years, this diagnosis has major implications for women’s sport in Australia. It also highlights the significant lack of research about women athletes in sport science and medicine.
There is emerging evidence that women are at significantly higher risk of mild traumatic brain injury (concussion) and may suffer more severe symptoms.
Concussion alone does not cause CTE, but an athlete’s number of concussions is a reliable indicator of their cumulative exposure to brain trauma, which is the biggest predictor of CTE.
The health of women athletes and women’s sport will only progress if researchers, policymakers and sport governance bodies ensure the attention and resources required to address concussion and brain disease are not focused solely on men.