New research suggesting a link between playing rugby and developing dementia could help Hawke's Bay players deal with the long-term effect of head injuries, a local rugby executive says.
Brain injury specialist Dr Willie Stewart told BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday the brains of head-injury victims looked similar through a microscope to people with dementia.
The neuropathologist examined the brain tissue of a former rugby player for abnormal proteins associated with head injuries and dementia, confirming what he believed to be the first confirmed case of early-onset dementia caused by playing rugby.
Dr Stewart said sports such as rugby and American football were beginning to lead to problems later in life normally suffered by former boxers.
Dementia pugilistica, also known as punch-drunk syndrome, mainly affects the frontal lobe and symptoms can include memory and speech problems, trembling and a lack of coordination.
Symptoms usually appear 12-16 years after the boxer's career begins and about 15-20 per cent of professional boxers are thought to develop it.
Hawke's Bay Rugby Union (HBRU) chief executive Mike Bishop said research in this area could help deal with "real concerns" about head injuries.
Most research in recent years had been confined to getting players back into the game following a head injury, he said.
"Nobody's really [studied] what that type of injury does to you later in life.
"Anything that may assist how the medical profession and sporting teams manage players throughout their careers has got to be a benefit - no question."
All of HBRU's 3200 registered players had a strict stand-down period of three weeks for any type of head injury.
However, the findings didn't necessarily mean everyone with a head injury would develop dementia, he said.
"While we need to take a cautious approach ... we'd like to see the evidence. But if it's proven there's a link, something needs to be done about that."
ACC received 2704 claims for rugby-related injuries in Hawke's Bay last year at a total cost of almost $3 million - 157 fewer than 2011.
Club rugby player Willie Halaifonua, 27, died from a brain bleed last month after collapsing with a head injury at the end of a premier division match at Auckland's North Shore.
The father of two underwent emergency surgery and was placed in an induced coma, but died three days later.
Meanwhile, a 17-year-old rugby player remains in an induced coma after suffering a head injury on Saturday during a high school rugby match in Dunedin.
National Dementia Cooperative chairwoman Dr Chris Perkins said the impacts of boxers' head injuries were well documented, but the same principle could apply to other high impact sports like rugby.
"It's one of the known facts that if you get too many head injuries, you end up with dementia," she said.
"Apart from the fact it's a brain injury, it leaves you with less brain reserve."
Ways to keep your heart healthy were well known, but the merits of brain protection were reasonably new, she said.
The usual health messages about eating well and exercising helped to stave off dementia, she said.
However, exercising your brain in "new and different" ways - like learning a new language - could actually offset the damage done by knocks to the head.