Is playing sport more dangerous than ever?

A spate of deaths during sporting activities – at grassroots and elite level, in recent months has left some wondering if the dangers of playing in sport have increased.

A spate of deaths during sporting activities - at grassroots and elite level, in recent months has left some wondering if the dangers of playing in sport have increased.Cricket was shocked by the death of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes last year after he was struck behind the ear by a ball.

And there have been a number of other tragic losses, in rugby league, rugby union and football.

So is playing sport getting more dangerous?

Statistics tell us very little. Up until now, there has been no detailed data on the number or nature of sport injuries treated by GPs or in hospitals.

Statistically sports injuries accounted for roughly 2% of cases seen in emergency departments last year, according to figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

But not everyone is asked how they were injured and the answer is not always noted down, so the total is likely to be much higher.

Rugby union is one sport in which injuries, and particularly concussion, have been well monitored. Last season, in a study of nearly 600 rugby players in England, 13% experienced concussion – the most common rugby injury for the past three years.

As a result, concussion in rugby is now being taken seriously, but the risks are still there because of how the game is played.

Professional rugby players are now much bigger and heavier than they were, and they play a more aggressive form of rugby.

To reduce the risk of serious injury in schools, advocates suggest taking contact out of collision sports such as rugby and football.

To some this might seem extreme, but all games have evolved over time and we just need to make it safer for children and prevent injuries from happening.

Some sports are inherently more dangerous than others.

Snow sports, American football, equestrian sport and sky diving are all more risky than tennis, badminton and athletics, but that doesn’t stop people from doing them.

In fact, more people are taking part in extreme sports such as base jumping and parachuting than ever before.

Dr Mike Loosemore, lead sports physician for the English Institute of Sport, says there is a definite trend towards trying out new and ever more dangerous activities, even though people are not always trained or equipped for them.

In an over protective society, he suggests, it’s one way of getting the adrenaline rush we all crave. And adding lots of protective equipment isn’t a solution to the increased danger.

“Padding just means you get braver. American footballers have massive, well-designed helmets but they don’t stop concussion. Instead they use them as a weapon.”

He says professional rugby players who wear shoulder pads just end up tackling harder.

In general, most sporting bodies are aware of the risks faced by those who take part and try hard to protect them by amending the rules and introducing new policies on injuries.

At an elite level, pushing the body harder and harder does make injuries more likely, but there will always be the risk of a freak accident or an undetected heart condition.

Thanks to round the clock media coverage we are all more aware of fatal injuries in sport when they occur too, which makes them feel more frequent.

At a basic level, sport is attractive because there is some danger involved. Taking that away altogether would change it completely.

Dr Loosemore says removing the risk is dangerous in itself.

“Sport is a way of putting danger into lives in a controlled way. If you get in a certain position it hurts. You don’t want children to get hurt of course, but there is less chance of it happening if they play sport in the real world.”

Fit legs equals fit brain new study suggests

New research suggests that fitter legs may lead to fitter brains.

New research suggests that fitter legs may lead to fitter brains.
Older women who have strong legs are likely to fare better when it comes to ageing of the brain, a decade long study of more than 300 twins suggests.

The King’s College London team says leg power is a useful marker of whether someone is getting enough exercise to help keep their mind in good shape.

Exercise releases chemicals in the body that may boost elderly brains, say the scientists, in the journal Gerontology. But they say more research is needed to prove their hunch.

It is difficult to separate leg strength from other lifestyle factors that may have an impact on brain health and the study did not look specifically at dementia, experts say.

The researchers tracked the health of more than 150 pairs of twin sisters aged between 43 and 73 at the start of the study.

Leg power was measured at the start of the study using a modified piece of gym equipment that measured both speed and power of leg extension, while brain power was measured at both the start and the end of the study using computerised tasks that tested memory and mental processing skills.

Generally, the twin who had more leg power at the start of the study sustained their cognition better and had fewer brain changes associated with ageing measured after 10 years. And the findings remained when other known lifestyle and health risk factors for dementia were included.

Lead researcher Dr Claire Steves said: “When it came to cognitive ageing, leg strength was the strongest factor that had an impact in our study.

“Other factors such as heart health were also important, but the link with leg strength remained even after we accounted for these.

“We think leg strength is a marker of the kind of physical activity that is good for your brain.”

Alzheimer’s Society director of research Dr Doug Brown said the findings added to the growing evidence that physical activity could help look after the brain as well as the body.

“However, we still don’t fully understand how this relationship works and how we can maximise the benefit,” he said. “And we have yet to see if the improvements in memory tests actually translate into a reduced risk of dementia.”

Alzheimer’s Research UK director of research Dr Simon Ridley said: “We know that keeping active generally can help reduce dementia risk, and it’s important to take into account strength training as well as aerobic exercise.”