Former Australian footballer diagnosed with CTE after her death

Scientists say those who sustain repeated head impacts are more susceptible to CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease.
Australian Rules Football field
Posted at 3:18 PM, Jul 05, 2023

A now-deceased Australian rules football player became the first female athlete ever diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Heather Anderson, 28, died of a suspected suicide in November. The Concussion Legacy Foundation reported that her brain was donated for scientific use. The organization said CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head impacts. 

Anderson reportedly started playing sports like rugby and Australian rules football at age 5 until 23. Both sports involve a lot of contact and tackling. 

She played Australian rules football professionally in 2017, but retired after reportedly suffering a shoulder injury.

Her death came about five years after her retirement. 

"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," Dr. Michael Buckland, director of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, said in a press release. "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."

Images showing that former NFL player Aaron Hernandez suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Study: Head impacts, not concussions, drive football-related CTE risk

The study also found that linemen were more prone to developing CTE than players at any other position.


The Concussion Legacy Foundation said Anderson did not show any signs of depression. There was no history of drug or alcohol use, the organization said. 

"The first case of CTE in a female athlete should be a wakeup call for women's sports," said Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder and CEO 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."

Earlier this year,Boston University's CTE Center said they have diagnosed 345 former NFL players with CTE out of 376 players studied. By comparison, when studying 164 members of the general public, only one person had CTE. That person, Boston University said, was a former college football player.

Researchers stressed that it should not be implied that 91% of NFL players have CTE, rather that repeated head impacts increase the risk of the disease.