Adelaide premiership player Heather Anderson has become the first known professional female athlete to be diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after a landmark diagnosis at the Australian Sports Brain Bank.
Anderson died in November 2022 at the age of 28, with her unexpected death the subject of an ongoing coronial investigation.
Anderson, who was also a medic in the Australian defence force, played rugby league and then Australian rules football during her contact sports career, which began at age five and spanned 18 years until her retirement at the end of the 2017 season.
She played eight games for the Adelaide Crows in 2017, and had an injury-plagued career that included at least one confirmed diagnosed concussion.
Director of the Australian Sports Brain Bank Professor Michael Buckland says the diagnosis is a significant step in understanding the effects 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," he said.
Researchers say severe cases of CTE can present similarly to Alzheimer's or depression, however, Ms Anderson is said to have shown no signs of a significant deterioration in health before her death in 2022.
Neurologist Alan Pearce says research on CTE has been limited due to the lack of support from major sporting codes but hopes the diagnosis is a wake-up call to the AFLW.
"Despite the fact that we know that women have greater rates of concussion, we haven't actually got any long-term evidence until now. So this is a highly significant case study."
CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, was also found in the brains of AFL legend Danny Frawley, 56, and Richmond star Shane Tuck, 38, who both committed suicide in similarly tragic circumstances.
What is brain disease CTE?
CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries, which include concussions and non-concussive impacts.
Mood, behaviour and cognitive symptoms can include:
- Impulse control problems
- Mood swings
- Problems with executive function
- Impaired judgment
- Poor Short-term memory
Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed by an examination of brain tissue after a patient has died.