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Former rugby player diagnosed with early onset dementia says rules 'must change'

10 December 2020, 07:28 | Updated: 10 December 2020, 14:18

By Sion Pritchard

A former Welsh rugby union player is calling for a change to game rules after being diagnosed with early onset dementia at 40.

It comes amid the news that a group of rugby union players are planning to take legal action against the game’s authorities after being diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Former Wales forward Alix Popham, now 41, and his wife Melanie told LBC how his diagnosis has affected their lives and the hope they have for the future.

Alix explained: "It was just over a year ago that I started noticing things with my memory, getting short tempered, concentration with reading books and taking in information with emails.

"I was a lot snappier towards things that I normally wouldn't be.

"But then September last year, I went on a bike riding route that I had been on many times and I got lost and had a blackout moment on this ride. It was a scary position to be in.

"Mel had been trying to get me to the doctors for a couple of months prior to that and I hadn't wanted to but after that bike ride I was quite shook up and I got booked in with the GP the next day.

He continued: "Being diagnosed with early onset dementia was a massive shock. But because there was six months of testing leading up to that, I was noticing things a lot more, we were talking about it a lot more.

"So when I got the diagnosis, because I felt like I was just making it up in my own head, it was a bit of a relief in a strange way that we had an answer.

Melanie explained: "As scary as that answer was and still is, we now know what the cause of all these things that were building up are and we've been able to make some positive effects through knowledge."

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Asked about the effects of the diagnosis on the family, Melanie said: "It's been really hard. We weren't telling anyone, not even our closest friends and family, and it was impacting my health quite significantly.

"The emotional stress and fear of it all and of not knowing was really difficult, and also for the children.

"We have a two year old daughter and two stepdaughters who are 16 and 12 and I have to be positive and pragmatic, and we can't change the past, but we have to look to the future for the girls.

"They need their dad to be their dad for as long as possible.

"It has been really hard but we are now getting some help and some support and it feels like a weight has been lifted now I can tell people about it.

"I've also been speaking with some of the other wives and we've been supporting each other."

Speaking about change they wish to see, Melanie said: "We now have a group of young former players who all have the same diagnosis.

"We want to make positive change together and we are working with both football and rugby families to come together and protect current and future players, while still protecting the games that we love."

And the lawyer leading an action against the sport's authorities has warned that the sport faces a dementia "epidemic" among retired professionals without serious reform of the game.

Richard Boardman, who is representing an initial group of seven players, says doing nothing is not an option.

Boardman says that, regardless of the outcome of the planned legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, immediate reform is required to prevent more players suffering in the way Thompson is.

He explained: "We believe up to 50 per cent of former professional rugby players could end up with neurological complications in retirement.

"That's an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.

"We can't do trial by media, so now we've announced the litigation we've got to take a step back.

"But immediate changes need to be made to the game to protect the current generation and future players. The collisions are just as big now, the speed of the game, the workload, and there's nothing to suggest what's happened to Alix Popham won't happen to current and future generations."