No one should be surprised that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has now been diagnosed (after death) in a female professional athlete - Heather Anderson. Years of repeated head trauma, whether from concussions or subconcussive hits, can eventually cause CTE. Head trauma, whether in males or females, occurs from body hits in football, rugby, heading the ball in soccer, and checking in ice hockey.
Heather Anderson was an Australian rules football player who started playing when she was 5, also played rugby, and eventually competed in the top women's Australian rules football league, retired at 23 after a shoulder injury, and committed suicide at 28. Both Australian rules football and rugby are contact sports. After death, her brain was examined and found to have the lesions characteristic of CTE.
CTE symptoms include memory loss, impaired judgement, confusion, aggression, depression, thinking about suicide, and eventually dementia. There is progressive degeneration of brain tissue in CTE, as well as build-up of the abnormal protein tau in the brain.
From NY Times: C.T.E. Found for First Time in Female Pro Athlete
For the first time, the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., has been diagnosed in a female professional athlete, researchers reported.
Heather Anderson, an Australian rules football player who died last year, was found to have had C.T.E., researchers said in a paper published in Acta Neuropathologica.
“As the representation of women in professional contact sports is growing, it seems likely that more C.T.E. cases will be identified in female athletes,” the report said. “Given females’ greater susceptibility to concussion, there is an urgent need to recognize the risks, and to institute strategies and policies to minimize traumatic brain injuries in increasingly popular female contact sports.”
Anderson started playing Australian rules football when she was 5 years old, eventually competing in the top women’s league for the Adelaide Crows. She retired at 23 in 2017 after a shoulder injury. She died by suicide, her family said, at 28. She had one confirmed concussion in her career, and as many as four more suspected by her family but not formally diagnosed.
C.T.E. can eventually lead to depression, memory loss and changes in personality, including aggressive behavior. It is worsened the longer an athlete competes in contact sports. The condition can only be diagnosed posthumously; Anderson’s family donated her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank for research.
Researchers found three lesions on Anderson’s brain. They indicated early stage C.T.E., which would be expected given her young age.
The vast majority of C.T.E. cases have come in men, especially those who participated in contact sports for many years, including the American football players Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Frank Gifford, Mike Webster and Andre Waters, as well as boxers and Australian football and rugby players. Aaron Hernandez, the N.F.L. player who was convicted of murder in 2015 and who died by suicide at 27, was found to have severe C.T.E. damage like that of a player in his 60s.