Ben Kay wants to allay fears and break the hysteria. A former rugby player in his 40s, he was concerned when he learned that his World Cup-winning teammate Steve Thompson had been diagnosed with dementia.
Thompson, who revealed last year that he is joining a class-action lawsuit against the game, believing his condition was caused by playing rugby, is 42 and all who joined the lawsuit are Kay’s contemporaries.
The former lock of Leicester and England is 45 and as down to earth in life as he is in providing punditry for BT Sport and ITV. So while he’s not in the legal process, he wants to help alleviate brain and rugby concerns.
World Cup winner Ben Kay has joined a groundbreaking research on dementia in rugby
“Fear of the game is probably just as strong as some of the fears people have, but it needs balance,” Kay tells Sportsmail who has joined a groundbreaking study of the brains of 50 former players.
“A lot of people have played rugby and not all of them have neurodegenerative diseases.”
Kay’s agent teamed up with footballer Alan Shearer when he produced a documentary in 2017 about possible links between his sport and dementia.
So when Kay, who works with the Rugby Players’ Association charity Restart, was inundated with messages from concerned players last year, she helped him reach out to brain experts.
With neuropathologist and concussion specialist Professor Willie Stewart and Professor Craig Ritchie, an expert on aging and brain health, Kay hosted a webinar to bring some peace of mind.
“Inevitably, some people will start to worry,” Kay explains. ‘It was amazing how many people wanted to participate because they were quietly starting to have doubts. As soon as someone plants that seed in your head, you start to worry a bit, thinking, ‘I forgot someone’s name or where I put my car keys. Oh crikey, is that because I had a concussion? “
“One of the biggest concerns I have with doctors is that stress and psychological problems are one of the risk factors. You’re at home worrying about it.
“There is a great example someone has set for me. Think of your brain as a computer, and it has a certain amount of RAM.
‘When you’re worried about your memory and you’re worried, it’s a neurodegenerative disease that’s already started, and then you think about the things you’ve forgotten, the more you worry, the more you forget, because your brain doesn’t have that ‘I have the processing power to deal with it.
Shane Williams also participated in the study and will have scans and checks for a number of years
The former English slot Kay hopes to reduce fears and help others as part of the dementia study
The neurologist himself said he forgets where he keeps his keys about four times a week, but is not concerned that he has a problem. Undoubtedly, rugby has a problem that needs to be addressed from all directions, but we need to maintain a bit of balance.
The game has been played for a long time – I know it’s more physical now than ever before – but it’s not inevitable that every player will go down that path.
‘My memory for people’s names has always been terrible, but there are some areas where it’s really good. Potentially, it’s just how the brain works. You can’t allay your fears without finding more information – that’s where this study is so important. ‘
That study is about the brains of ex-players. Kay joins other ex-professionals, including Welsh legend Shane Williams. Called PREVENT: RFC and funded with £ 250,000 from the Alzheimer’s Society, people between the ages of 40 and 59 will complete a lengthy health questionnaire, undergo tests and brain scans, then return in two years and five years to track changes.
The project has already compiled a control sample of 700, so adding rugby players can demonstrate the extent to which the sport adds risk.
“Hopefully this is the beginning, that the authorities can also enter data and we can build a clearer picture,” says Kay. There is a selfish reason for doing this. I don’t necessarily panic at home that this is a path that I am on, but the more information you know about yourself, the better. Likewise, it helps others.
Hopefully, this study will help find a cure for dementia for the general population.
‘I would be very surprised if I know rugby players, if there were many who wouldn’t want to be a part of this. I feel very lucky that I am. You have a duty to find some answers. ‘
Rugby itself has sought answers in the fight against concussions and brain injuries.
Luckily, Kay’s days of 100 scrum sessions, long physical midweek practice and a culture where players would hide their injuries for unaware of the consequences are long gone.
Kay’s ex-teammate Steve Thompson was diagnosed with early dementia last year
He has felt a subconscious shift in the way he talks about head bumps in games on television and is less fond of watching boxing these days, but he is wise enough to realize that there is no solution when it comes to rugby and brain health .
“As soon as rugby realized it had a problem, everyone suddenly thought the system was going to be perfect,” he says.
Everyone is a bit of an expert when it comes to changes we should make in rugby.
“We know it’s a reckless sport by nature, but if we can make it as safe as possible, then it’s up to players and parents to decide whether the benefits, which are significant, outweigh the risks.
The behavioral change hasn’t hit the charts in recent years. The players are better trained and know what to look for, so I absolutely believe the game has become safer.
“We should limit the amount of exposure players should take every week.
In all of this, the most important part of science is testing things, collecting as much data as possible, and using that to find possible solutions.
‘Rugby is no different. I hope this research is the beginning of the process of finding a solution. ‘