Dementia patients should watch re-runs of classic rugby matches

Older people and dementia patients should re-watch classic rugby matches to stimulate their memories, an NHS official has said today.

Professor Alistair Burns, NHS England’s director of dementia, argued reliving tense moments can revive ‘powerful memories that strengthen brain activity’.

His comments come ahead of the opening ceremony and first match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, which kicks off today.

England clinched the prestigious Webb Ellis Cup in dramatic fashion some sixteen years ago, sealing victory in the dying seconds.

England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup team are pictured celebrating, after Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal beat Australia in the dying seconds of the final

England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson nails a drop kick goal during the Rugby World Cup final between Australia and England at the Olympic Park Stadium in Sydney 2003

England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson nails a drop kick goal during the Rugby World Cup final between Australia and England at the Olympic Park Stadium in Sydney 2003

Jonny Wilkinson’s breath-taking drop-goal saw the Three Lions defeat fierce rivals Australia in front of a packed crowd in Sydney.

The match – considered by many fans to be one of the greatest ever sporting moments – was just one of three specific games Professor Burns named.

New Zealand’s 64-point thrashing of Italy in the first ever world cup fixture in 1987 was also mentioned, as was the 0-0 draw between Ireland and England in 1963.

Professor Burns said: ‘For people in old age and those living with dementia, memorable sporting events provide a connection with the past, prompt conversations and improve health.

‘Watching classic games and reliving tense moments can stimulate powerful emotional memories which can be revived many years after the events and strengthen brain activity.

‘Helping people live well into old age and manage with dementia are key parts of the NHS Long Term Plan.

England captain Martin Johnson is pictured hosting the Webb Ellis Cup at the stadium in Sydney, after the match finished

England captain Martin Johnson is pictured hosting the Webb Ellis Cup at the stadium in Sydney, after the match finished


Two thirds of people think dementia is a normal part of ageing rather than a medical condition, the world’s largest survey has revealed.

Alzheimer’s Disease International – a federation of 100 global associations – quizzed 70,000 people across more than 150 countries.

Forty-eight per cent of respondents believe a person with dementia’s memory will never improve – even with medical support.

While the poll also revealed that one in four people think there is nothing that can be done to prevent the memory-robbing disorder.

‘Stigma is the single biggest barrier limiting people around the world from improving how they live with dementia,’ said ADI’s chief executive Paola Barbarino.

‘At the individual level, stigma can undermine life goals and reduce participation in meaningful life activities as well as lower levels of well-being and quality of life.

At the societal level, structural stigma and discrimination can influence levels of funding allocated to care and support.’

Charities estimate more than 150million people will have dementia by 2050, a figure almost triple the current amount.

‘And with the NHS diagnosing a record number of older people with dementia this year, it’s vital we all do what we can to keep our brain active and social networks alive.’

Figures show there are around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over a million by 2025.

Tony Jameson-Allen, co-founder of Sporting Memories, which helps older people recall memories of watching or playing sport, backed the move.

He said: ‘We’re delighted to see Professor Burns and NHS England covering this topic at the start of another major sporting event.

‘As the tournament progresses, we hope families will enjoy watching the game together and take the chance to discuss favourite moments of previous Rugby World Cup tournaments.

‘It’s a great chance for generations to get together to discuss the memorable moments global sporting events create.

‘We hope it also inspires people to find out more about their local Sporting Memories club, either to attend, or to volunteer.’

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: ‘There will be many rugby fans glued to the TV watching their nations at the World Cup in the coming weeks.

‘And we hope the games will hopefully give us all something to be excited about. Sport means a lot to many people in our society and that doesn’t change as we age.’

She added: ‘Engaging in sports whether as participant or observer can do people no end of mental and physical good.’

Alistair Burns, NHS England clinical director for dementia and older people’s mental health

Millions of us across the globe will watch as Japan takes on Russia today in the first game of the rugby world cup.

And although rugby fans here might find sitting through the home nations’ clashes more stressful than enjoyable; watching sport can actually be good for our mental health, with benefits that last far longer than I fear my own Scotland side might in Japan.

Sport brings us together to share emotional experiences and watching matches is a great way – for older people in particular – to socialise, make new friends, and even be inspired to get physically active themselves.

And it’s not just this month’s sporting festival that can yield benefits for our minds and bodies: reliving classic sporting games can be a tonic for the hundreds of thousands of people living with dementia.

As we age, the brain struggles to stay active and alert, and this is particularly the case with conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Yet ‘emotional memory’ is stimulated and given a workout of its own when we rewatch classic matches and events from our younger years, like Jonny Wilkinson’s immortal 2003 dropkick or Jonah Lomu’s game-changing runs down the wing in 1995.

Details may fade but the thrill, buzz and intensity of sporting drama stays lodged in our minds – and reawakening them keeps the brain match-fit.

Take England winning the Webb Ellis trophy 16 years ago: while a lot of people who watched that final against Australia may not remember the final score, the possession stats or the line-ups, everyone who saw Martin Johnson lift the cup for England will remember exactly how that match made them feel.

This emotion can hold the key to keeping brain deterioration at bay.

As our population ages, society needs to get creative about how we manage what is a rising tide of dementia, and keep those people living with it safe, secure and well.

Dementia is one of the biggest challenges the health and social care systems face, with NHS England this year seeing a record high number of dementia diagnoses among older people.

Providing care and support to those patients and their families is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan, so timely diagnosis – when high-quality NHS treatment and mitigation and management tools like rewatching classic world cup matches can make a difference – is vital.

And it’s this sort of simple, small and sociable technique that can offer outsize benefits.

Although there is no cure for this heartbreaking disease, there are common sense steps we can take – whether young or old – to reduce the risk of getting dementia: it’s never too late to begin and you’re never too young to start.

As we enter older age, stay active: even if it’s walking a little further each day or following in legends’ footsteps by joining a local walking rugby club.

Maintain a good diet, drink alcohol in moderation and stay in touch with loved-ones – perhaps this autumn by watching the rugby together.

Keep the brain busy by doing the crossword, learning a new language or musical instrument.

And monitor rising blood pressure and cholesterol, which can be warning signs for dementia: what’s good for your heart is good for your head.

So as we all settle in for six weeks of sporting excitement, take a moment to get together with friends and loved ones, not just to talk about the sporting memories that will be created as Gregor’s, Eddie’s and Warren’s men take to the field, but also those that we experienced together in the past.

Reliving these past glories, triumphs and even setbacks can do us more good than we might first realise, so taking advantage of this feast of rugby to improve our mental health, must be worth a try.


Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders


Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders, that is, conditions affecting the brain.

There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.

Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.

Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.


The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.

It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.

In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.

As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.

Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.


Currently there is no cure for dementia.

But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.

Source: Alzheimer’s Society