Study on health of retired sports stars

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Researchers from Trinity college are to study former Irish professional rugby players and other athletes to assess the positive and negative effects of a professional sports career on an athlete’s long-term health.

While retired elite athletes from Rowing Ireland are also participating in the study, the research is to have a particular focus on impact sports where there is also a risk of injury, including exposure to head impacts.

Dr Fiona Wilson, associate professor in physiotherapy and one of the principal investigators on the project, said a strong aspect of this programme is that it includes female athletes “who are commonly ignored in this type of research”.

“Trinity is really well placed to conduct this research because of its global reputation in brain health; with particular expertise in neuroscience, psychology, and sports medicine.

“Collaboration with such strong sporting bodies as Rugby Players Ireland and Rowing Ireland, who are invested in long-term athlete health, ensures engagement and ongoing support for these athletes.”

Dr Ella McCabe, senior clinical psychologist and head of player wellbeing at Rugby Players Ireland, said retired players can face a particular set of challenges, including “renegotiating their identity, sense of belonging, sense of purpose, and financial circumstances all at once”.

“We are constantly developing our elite athlete mental health services to meet the unique needs of professional players both during their playing career, at the point of transition and following retirement,” said Dr McCabe.

“This includes preventative measures such as psychoeducation to develop awareness and coping strategies, as well as tailored mental health services and follow-up support.

“Our services are designed based on player feedback, the current evidence base, and involvement in high-quality research,” she said.

The study, led by physiotherapists, neuroscientists, and psychologists, will look at various aspects of brain health from general mental wellness to cognitive functioning.

Researchers will also investigate how ex-athletes are coping on an emotional and mental level following retirement from full-time sport, with particular attention on post-retirement lifestyle.

It will also assess general health and any injuries that have caused ongoing issues and how this impacts on leading a normal life.

Simon Keogh, CEO at Rugby Players Ireland, said the study will be of great benefit to the work of the association.

“This study, which is in the hands of some leading medical professionals, will give us a great insight as to where the focus of our work should be going forward when dealing with retired players,” he said.

“Furthermore, on an individual level, our players will be provided with valuable information about their current brain health and general well-being.”

Research findings from the study are expected in the autumn of this year.

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