Former Australian Football League player becomes first female athlete to be diagnosed with CTE

A former Australian rules football player has been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a landmark finding for female professional athletes.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation said Heather Anderson, who played for Adelaide in the Australian Football League Women’s competition, is the first female athlete diagnosed with CTE, the degenerative brain disease linked to concussions.

Researchers at the Australian Sports Brain Bank, established in 2018 and co-founded by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, diagnosed Anderson as having had low-stage CTE and three lesions in her brain.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, can cause memory loss, depression and violent mood swings in athletes, combat veterans and others who sustain repeated head trauma. Anderson died last November at age 28.

“There were multiple CTE lesions as well as abnormalities nearly everywhere I looked in her cortex. It was indistinguishable from the dozens of male cases I’ve seen,” Michael Buckland, director of the ASBB, said in a statement.

Heather Anderson
FILE — Heather Anderson of the Crows looks to pass the ball during the round four Australian Football League Women’s match between the Fremantle Dockers and the Adelaide Crows at Fremantle Oval on Feb. 26, 2017, in Fremantle, Australia.

Will Russell/AFL Media / Getty Images

On Tuesday, Buckland told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the diagnosis was a step toward understanding the impact of years of playing contact sport has on women’s brains.

“While we’ve been finding CTE in males for quite some time, I think this is really the tip of the iceberg and it’s a real red flag that now women are participating (in contact sport) just as men are, that we are going to start seeing more and more CTE cases in women,” Buckland told the ABC’s 7.30 program.

Buckland co-authored a report on his findings with neurologist Alan Pearce.

“Despite the fact that we know that women have greater rates of concussion, we haven’t actually got any long-term evidence until now,” Pearce said. “So this is a highly significant case study.”

Anderson had at least one diagnosed concussion while playing eight games during Adelaide’s premiership-winning AFLW season in 2017. Anderson had played rugby league and Aussie rules, starting in contact sports at the age of 5. She retired from the professional AFLW after the 2017 season because of a shoulder injury before returning to work as an army medic.

“The first case of CTE in a female athlete should be a wakeup call for women’s sports,” Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO Chris Nowinski said. “We can prevent CTE by preventing repeated impacts to the head, and we must begin a dialogue with leaders in women’s sports today so we can save future generations of female athletes from suffering.”

Buckland thanked the family for donating Anderson’s brain and said he hopes “more families follow in their footsteps so we can advance the science to help future athletes.”

There’s been growing awareness and research into CTE in sports since 2013, when the NFL settled lawsuits — at a cost at the time of $765 million — from thousands of former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems. A study released in February by the Boston University CTE Center found that a staggering 345 of 376 former NFL players who were studied had been diagnosed with CTE, a rate of nearly 92%. One of those players most recently diagnosed with CTE was the late Irv Cross, a former NFL player and the first Black man to work fulltime as a sports analyst on national television. Cross died in 2021 at the age of 81. Cross was diagnosed with stage 4 CTE, the most advanced form of the disease. 

In March, a class action was launched in Victoria state’s Supreme Court on behalf of Australian rules footballers who have sustained concussion-related injuries while playing or preparing for professional games in the national league since 1985.

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