Contact: Julia Manning | 515-201-7199 | firstname.lastname@example.org
First female athlete diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
AFLW (Australian football) star, Army medic Heather Anderson died by suspected suicide at 28
(Boston) – Researchers at the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB), which was co-founded by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, have diagnosed the first female athlete with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head impacts. Dr. Michael Buckland identified low-stage CTE in the brain of former professional Australian rules footballer Heather Anderson, who died in November 2022 at the age of 28. Her death is subject to an ongoing coronial investigation. Due to the circumstances surrounding the death, it is suspected she died by suicide.
“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,” said Buckland, director of the ASBB. “I want to thank the Anderson family for generously donating Heather’s brain and hope more families follow in their footsteps so we can advance the science to help future athletes.”
Anderson played both rugby league and Australian rules football during her contact sports career, which lasted 18 years, beginning at age 5. Her mother insisted that she wear a helmet during games due to the risk of concussions.
“She hated watching me get smashed,” Anderson told media outlet Mamamia in 2017.
A soft-shelled pink helmet became Anderson’s signature during her time as a key member of the 2017 premiership-winning Adelaide Crows. Off the pitch, she served as a medic in the Army for nine years. Her family says she did not exhibit any signs of depression or unusual behavior in the months leading up to her death, and she did not have a history of alcohol or drug use.
“The first case of CTE in a female athlete should be a wakeup call for women’s sports,” said CLF co-founder and CEO Dr. Chris Nowinski. “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.”
To date, there have only been a handful of CTE cases reported in women, and none have been former athletes. As women’s participation in contact sports grows, and as former contact sports athletes age, researchers anticipate more female athletes will be diagnosed with CTE.
“Research shows women have an equal or greater susceptibility to concussion in contact sports, but we don’t yet know what that means for their risk of developing CTE,” said CLF co-founder and medical director Dr. Robert Cantu. “We urgently need to accelerate research on CTE in women so we can prevent future cases, better understand how CTE impacts their behavior and cognition, and treat those who develop symptoms.”
Dr. Nowinski traveled to Australia in 2018 for the opening of the ASBB with the goal of accelerating CTE research in Australia to better understand, prevent, treat, and eventually cure CTE and other consequences of sports-related brain trauma. Since then, more than 60 brains have been donated for study.
CLF also launched a new chapter of the charity, CLF Australia, in 2022. Help is available in Australia and around the world for former and current athletes and veterans who may be struggling with suspected CTE symptoms. The Concussion Legacy Foundation HelpLine provides free, personalized support to patients and families battling concussion or suspected CTE symptoms. Anyone who needs assistance or support can reach out at CLFHelpline.org.
Female athletes interested in joining research efforts to prevent future cases of CTE are encouraged to join the CLF Research Registry to enroll in relevant studies and pledge to donate their brains. Learn more here.