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‘COVID paralyzed my diaphragm’: Marathon runner shares how the infection took his breath away

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‘COVID paralyzed my diaphragm’: Marathon runner shares how the infection took his breath away

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Someone with COVID-19 might expect to experience fatigue, cold and flu symptoms, and loss of taste and smell — but a paralyzed diaphragm would likely not be on the radar.

It was certainly a surprise to Gerald Branim, 55, a runner from Tennessee. His life took a drastic turn when COVID-19 damaged his lungs and diaphragm to the extent that he was unable to run or walk for a year.

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Branim and his doctor, Matthew Kaufman of the Institute of Advanced Reconstruction in New Jersey, joined Fox News Digital in an interview to discuss Branim’s ordeal and recovery.

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When Branim got COVID in Feb. 2021, he was a fit, healthy 52-year-old who ran marathons. 

In spite of that, the infection caused significant lung damage. He spent two weeks in the hospital and three months out of work.

Gerald Branim, 55, was a marathon runner when he got COVID, which led to a paralyzed diaphragm that stopped him in his tracks.  (Institute for Advanced Reconstruction)

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For two months after leaving the hospital, Branim used a walker as he continued struggling with lung complications.

“For someone who had run marathons, it was quite humbling to have to walk with a walker for three months,” he said.

After rounds of high-dose steroids and lots of antibiotics, Branim’s chest X-rays finally showed that his lungs had cleared — but he was still having trouble functioning.

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“I still couldn’t go upstairs without my oxygen dropping severely,” he recalled. “I couldn’t run 100 yards without my oxygen dropping into dangerous levels. I was severely out of breath.”

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“That’s when they started saying something else was going on — that this shouldn’t be happening.”

“I couldn’t run 100 yards without my oxygen dropping into dangerous levels. I was severely out of breath.”

After 10 months of not being able to walk or run, Branim’s condition was finally diagnosed via a “sniff test,” which is also called a chest fluoroscopy or a video chest X-ray, where the patient is asked to breathe in and out. 

Any paralysis will show up on the scan, as the diaphragm won’t move upon breathing.

What to know about diaphragm paralysis

Diaphragm paralysis — which is a “pretty rare condition,” according to Kaufman, Branim’s doctor — is paralysis of the diaphragm muscle, which is the primary breathing muscle. 

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Previous studies have estimated that the condition affects only about 1.31% of the population. In about 95% of cases, only one side is paralyzed, the doctor noted.

“We have two diaphragms, one on the right, one on the left,” he said.

Gerald Branim with doctor and patient

Branim, far right, is pictured with his doctor, Matthew Kaufman, center, and another patient at the half-marathon they ran together after Branim’s surgery. (Institute for Advanced Reconstruction)

In cases where both sides are paralyzed, symptoms will be much more severe, usually requiring the patient to be put on oxygen.

“It’s become sort of a phenomenon,” Kaufman told Fox News Digital. “The phrenic nerve, which is the nerve that controls the diaphragm, seems to be an area where the COVID virus can have an impact.”

In some ways, he said, the condition can be considered part of long COVID, which is when symptoms of the virus linger for weeks, months or even years after infection.

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Most people with diaphragm paralysis won’t have difficulty breathing while sitting. Symptoms will typically emerge with exertion, such as walking or exercising, or when changing positions, such as lying flat in bed or bending over to tie their shoes, Kaufman said.

Some people are more susceptible than others, the doctor noted.

“We know that viruses tend to attack nerves in the body, as we’ve seen in Bell’s palsy,” he said. “And now we’re seeing it with COVID causing injury to the phrenic nerve.”

Gerald Branim

Branim set a goal of running a half-marathon within a year of his surgery date, which he achieved alongside his doctor in April 2023. (Institute for Advanced Reconstruction)

Because the condition is rare to begin with, he said, it’s not something that’s universally known.

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“And then you take a condition like COVID, which causes respiratory symptoms from inflammation in the airways and lungs, and then you tie in what we consider to be a neuromuscular problem,” Kaufman said.

“A lot of times, the physician or patient will attribute it to airway inflammation, when in fact it’s a problem related to nerves and muscles that are part of the respiratory system.”

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In some cases, patients will recover on their own, Kaufman said.

“We usually recommend a period of about six to 12 months of physical therapy, breathing exercises and cardiovascular fitness to try to see if this will come back on its own,” he said.

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If improvement is not noticed in that time frame, surgical intervention becomes a possibility.

Gerald Branim

Branim emphasized the importance of patients serving as their own advocates. “Doctors are human — they don’t know everything,” he said. “So you have to advocate for yourself.” (Institute for Advanced Reconstruction)

In 2020 and 2021, Kaufman said he saw an uptick of patients who experienced diaphragm paralysis after having COVID. Although he is still seeing some cases, they are starting to trail off a bit.

“That could be because the classic COVID is not as virulent or severe,” he said. “Or maybe it’s because more people are immunized.”

Although the condition is generally not life-threatening, it can be more severe in patients who have existing respiratory conditions.

Racing toward recovery

After Branim’s diagnosis, his lung doctor advised him to continue to give it time to heal.

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“But it wasn’t getting any better,” he said. “And I just wasn’t satisfied with that being my new quality of life.”

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That’s when Branim turned to Google to research surgical options. He came across an article by Kaufman, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who specializes in an area called peripheral nerve microsurgery.

Kaufman specializes in conditions that cause either pain or paralysis due to nerve damage of the peripheral nervous system. 

After meeting with Kaufman in a telehealth visit, Branim was identified as a prime candidate for the surgery, which is called phrenic nerve reconstruction. 

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“It wasn’t getting any better — and I just wasn’t satisfied with that being my new quality of life.”

If he had waited much longer, he said, his diaphragm muscle would have atrophied and the surgery would no longer have been possible.

After a lot of back and forth with the insurance company, Branim finally got the green light to travel from Nashville to New Jersey for the procedure.

The surgery went smoothly, although Branim was told that it wouldn’t be an immediate improvement. Once the nerve is fixed, the muscle still needs time to strengthen and rehabilitate.

Gerald Branim

Studies have estimated that the condition affects only about 1.31% of the population. In about 95% of cases, only one side is paralyzed. (Institute for Advanced Reconstruction)

“Dr. Kaufman told me that it would probably take a year or two to recover fully, and was preaching patience — but I’m not a patient man in the slightest sense of the word,” Branim laughed.

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He set a goal of running a half-marathon within a year of his surgery date.

After four weeks, Branim slowly began exercising again. After six months, he decided to lace up his running shoes and give it a try.

“My very first run after the surgery, I ran five miles,” he said. “I literally cried. At that point, it was like a light switch had been flipped.”

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Within six months, Branim had not only regained his ability to run, but exceeded his original goals, culminating in a half-marathon in April 2023.

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In a triumphant twist, Kaufman, who is also a runner, joined his patient in completing the race in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Now, Branim aims to raise awareness about diaphragm paralysis, an often-overlooked condition that is not on most doctors’ or patients’ radars.

diaphragm

Previous studies have estimated that the condition affects only about 1.31% of the population. In about 95% of cases, only one side is paralyzed. (iStock)

“None of my doctors had even heard of this surgery,” he said. “Had I not found the article about Dr. Kaufman and another runner online, I would have never been able to have the surgery — and I would absolutely not be running today.” 

Branim emphasized the importance of patients serving as their own advocates.

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“Doctors are human — they don’t know everything,” he said. “So you have to advocate for yourself.”

For patients who are experiencing shortness of breath with exertion that persists for several months, Kaufman recommends visiting a primary care physician or pulmonary physician to get the necessary testing.

“While most tests will find more common ailments, it definitely makes sense to keep a paralyzed diaphragm on the list of things to rule out.”

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8 bad habits that make you age faster, according to experts

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8 bad habits that make you age faster, according to experts

We can’t slow down time — but we can slow down its effects on us, according to experts.

The key is to make healthier choices in the areas that we can control — and that starts with breaking bad habits.

“One of the primary hallmarks of aging is accumulated cellular damage that leads to organ dysfunction and, ultimately, death,” Dr. Brett Osborn, a Florida neurologist and longevity expert with Senolytix, told Fox News Digital.

10 TIPS TO LIVE TO BE 100: ‘FAR MORE THAN WISHFUL THINKING,’ SAY LONGEVITY EXPERTS

“The key to staying healthy is minimizing cellular damage by not throwing accelerants into the fire, which is unfortunately what most Americans do.” 

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Doctors shared with Fox News Digital the eight most common unhealthy behaviors that speed up the aging process — and tips on how to avoid them.

The key is to make healthier choices in the areas that can be controlled — and that starts with breaking bad habits, experts say. (iStock)

1. Smoking

Smoking has been proven to shorten life expectancy. 

Researchers from Action on Smoking and Health in the U.K. have reported that a 30-year-old smoker can expect to live for about 35 more years — compared to 53 years for a non-smoker. 

“Smoking speeds up aging by exposing you to harmful chemicals, reducing oxygen supply, breaking down collagen and increasing oxidative stress,” Dr. Dawn Ericsson, an obstetrician/gynecologist and medical director at AgeRejuvenation in Tampa, Florida, told Fox News Digital.

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“The harmful effects of tobacco extend beyond lung health, accelerating skin aging and increasing the risk of gum disease and tooth loss.”

Smoking introduces toxins that impair skin elasticity and collagen production, which leads to wrinkles, Osborn added.

Woman smoking

“The harmful effects of tobacco extend beyond lung health, accelerating skin aging and increasing the risk of gum disease and tooth loss,” an expert said. (iStock)

“Free radicals in smoke damage lung tissue – inducing cancer – and the walls of your blood vessels,” he told Fox News Digital.

“The incidence of heart attack, stroke and brain aneurysms is significantly higher in smokers relative to nonsmokers.”

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The quickest fix is to quit smoking immediately, the experts agreed.

“The incidence of heart attack, stroke and brain aneurysms is significantly higher in smokers relative to nonsmokers.”

To increase the chance of success in quitting, Ericsson suggested setting a “quit date,” avoiding triggers and seeking support from friends, family and health care providers.

Some also get results with nicotine replacement therapy or medications like bupropion and varenicline, she said.

2. Excess sun exposure

An excess of sun exposure can lead to aging by damaging the skin’s DNA, causing wrinkles, sagging skin and dark spots, Ericsson noted.

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Osborn agreed, also warning of an increased risk of skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and melanoma, the latter of which can be fatal.

Woman putting on sunscreen

An excess of sun exposure can lead to aging by damaging the skin’s DNA, causing wrinkles, sagging skin and dark spots, a doctor said. (iStock)

“Regularly using sunscreen with a high SPF, wearing protective clothing and avoiding sun exposure during peak hours can protect the skin,” Osborn advised. 

CATCH SKIN CANCER WARNING SIGNS EARLY WITH REGULAR SELF-EXAMS

Other protective strategies include covering up with hats, sunglasses and protective clothing, and seeking shade during the sun’s strongest hours (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), according to Ericsson. 

Staying hydrated and using antioxidants like vitamins C and E can also help protect the skin. 

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3. Poor diet

A nutrient-deficient diet has been shown to accelerate aging, experts agree.

“A diet high in processed foods, sugars and unhealthy fats can cause inflammation, damage collagen and accelerate skin aging,” Ericsson warned.

Diets high in processed foods and sugars can cause inflammation and free radical damage, Osborn added. 

Unhealthy snacking

A nutrient-deficient diet has been shown to accelerate aging, experts agree. (iStock)

“The induced insulin-resistant or pre-diabetic state places you one step closer to the dreaded ‘metabolic syndrome’ — a gateway to diseases such as coronary artery disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease,” he told Fox News Digital.

To reduce aging signs, the experts recommend eating a balanced diet rich in low-glycemic index fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and anti-inflammatory fats (omega-3 and omega-9).

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“Antioxidants in these foods combat free radical damage, as do antioxidant supplements like vitamin C, green tea and omega-3 fatty acids,” said Osborn.

Other tips include pre-planning meals and snacks — with a focus on focusing on whole, unprocessed foods — to avoid impulsive unhealthy choices, according to Ericsson.

Cooking at home, controlling portions and staying hydrated are also good ways to improve nutrition intake, she added.

4. Lack of exercise

“Lack of exercise contributes to aging by causing muscle loss, bone density reduction, weight gain and cardiovascular issues,” Ericsson told Fox News Digital.

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Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining muscle mass, circulation and cognitive health as we age, she advised.

Woman rowing

Regular physical activity, particularly strength training, is foundational to health and longevity, doctors agree. (iStock)

Osborn is also an advocate of staying active, noting that “our bodies are meant to exercise.”

“Our bodies are meant to exercise. It benefits the body and the mind.”

“Exercise turns over 100 genes associated with longevity, so don’t skip it! It benefits the body and the mind.”

Regular physical activity, particularly strength training, is foundational to your health, according to Osborn. 

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“This means you must lift weights and breathe hard during your workouts,” he said. 

WOMEN GET MORE BENEFIT FROM EXERCISE THAN MEN, STUDY FINDS: ‘MORE TO GAIN’

On “off days,” Osborn suggests doing 45 minutes of lighter endurance training, like walking, rowing, swimming or jogging, which will improve your cardiovascular fitness while allowing you to recover from heavy bouts of strength training.

To sustain a long-term exercise routine, it’s important to find activities you consistently enjoy, set realistic goals, stay flexible and “listen to your body,” said Ericsson.

5. Excessive alcohol consumption

Alcohol dehydrates the skin and can lead to liver damage and cognitive impairment, Osborn warned. 

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“It also causes problems with blood sugar regulation and is intimately associated with obesity,” he said. “As alcohol is a cellular toxin, it accelerates the aging process.”

Ericsson agreed that excessive alcohol consumption accelerates aging by causing dehydration, nutrient depletion, inflammation, liver damage and collagen breakdown.

man refuses a drink

“Aim to eliminate habitual drinking within the next 6-12 months,” a longevity expert advised. “You’ll feel better and save a lot of money in the long run.” (iStock)

“Chronic drinking can dehydrate the skin, damage the liver and increase the risk of cognitive decline,” said Ericsson.

As with smoking, the fix is to eliminate alcohol consumption, experts agreed.

DRINKING A LITTLE ALCOHOL EVERY DAY WON’T HELP YOU LIVE LONGER, SAYS NEW STUDY

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“I’m not saying to quit cold turkey, but aim to eliminate habitual drinking within the next six to 12 months,” Osborn advised. “You’ll feel better and save a lot of money in the long run.”

Other tips to stop drinking include avoiding triggers, staying busy with healthy activities and seeking professional help if needed, according to Ericsson.

6. Chronic stress

While some degree of stress is normal and healthy, chronic high stress levels can shorten telomeres, which are DNA protein structures that “play a central role in cell fate and aging by adjusting the cellular response to stress and growth stimulation on the basis of previous cell divisions and DNA damage,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Chronic stress can also exacerbate skin conditions and impact mental health, accelerating aging,” Ericsson added.

Woman meditating

Stress management techniques like mindfulness, meditation, therapy and regular physical activity can alleviate stress, according to experts. (iStock)

Long-term stress affects the body’s ability to repair itself and can lead to premature aging, according to Osborn.

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“Aging is a state of heightened inflammation — and once the body’s ability to temper inflammation via cortisol production has been exhausted, it reigns unchecked,” he said.

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Stress management techniques like mindfulness, meditation, therapy and regular physical activity can alleviate stress, Osborn said. 

“Strength training also reduces cortisol production (several hours post-workout) — and, by virtue, facilitates sleep, which is critical to stress reduction.” 

7. Inadequate sleep

Lack of sleep accelerates aging by reducing skin health, increasing inflammation and causing hormonal imbalance, Ericsson noted.

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“Inadequate sleep also hampers cell repair and affects cognitive function,” she said.

Sleep is crucial for the body’s regenerative processes, Osborn noted.

Woman awake

Lack of sleep accelerates aging by reducing skin health, increasing inflammation and causing hormonal imbalance, according to a doctor. (iStock)

“If you don’t sleep, you’ll have difficulty shedding that spare tire, as significant fat-burning occurs during sleep,” he said.

“You’ll also set yourself up for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.”

Memories are also formed during sleep, he noted. 

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LACK OF SLEEP COULD BE A FACTOR IN A ‘SILENT EPIDEMIC,’ EXPERTS WARN

“Sleep cannot be hacked — it is an essential part of health and well-being.”

To optimize sleep health, Osborn suggested establishing a regular schedule, creating a restful environment and avoiding stimulants before bedtime. 

“Also, minimizing consumption of carbohydrates within several hours of bedtime can facilitate sleep induction,” he said.

“Sleep cannot be hacked — it is an essential part of health and well-being.”

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“In a similar context, ditch the cell phone, laptop and tablet as early as possible to minimize blue light’s interference with the production of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone.”

 Manage stress and seek professional help if needed, Ericsson added.

8. Poor oral hygiene

Poor oral hygiene accelerates aging by causing gum disease, tooth loss, stained teeth and bad breath, Ericsson warned.

“Gum disease and tooth loss not only affect oral health, but also impact overall well-being, contributing to an aged appearance,” she added.

Optimal oral hygiene requires regular dental check-ups, proper brushing and flossing, and use of an antimicrobial mouthwash. (iStock)

There is also a link between heart disease risk and the incidence of coronary artery disease and gingivitis, Osborn noted.

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“Inflammation is not only occurring in the mouth — it’s a systemic problem,” he said. “So, if there is a state of accelerated aging in the mouth, you better believe it’s elsewhere, let alone your entire gut.”

Optimal oral hygiene requires regular dental check-ups, proper brushing and flossing, and use of an antimicrobial mouthwash, Osborn said.

Limiting sugary and acidic foods, avoiding tobacco products, staying hydrated and chewing sugar-free gum after meals can also help with mouth health, Ericsson added.

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Your 2024 Full Moon in Scorpio Horoscope: What’s in Store for You Come April 23

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Your 2024 Full Moon in Scorpio Horoscope: What’s in Store for You Come April 23



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Former rugby star Wally Lewis urges Australian government to fund CTE support services

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Former rugby star Wally Lewis urges Australian government to fund CTE support services
  • Wally Lewis has urged the Australian government to fund support services and education about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
  • Lewis, a rugby player from the 1980s, made an appeal on behalf of the Concussion and CTE Coalition for millions of dollars in funding.
  • Lewis revealed that he is living with probable CTE, a type of dementia linked to repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head.

A legendary rugby player has cited the fear and anxiety that has come into his life among the reasons for urging the Australian government to fund support services and education about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Wally Lewis, dubbed “The King” when he played rugby league for Queensland state and Australia in the 1980s, made an appeal on behalf of the Concussion and CTE Coalition for millions of dollars in funding during a National Press Club address Tuesday.

The 64-year-old Lewis said he’s living with probable CTE, which he described as a type of dementia associated with repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head.

HYPE OR HORROR? THE RISK OF CTE BRAIN DISEASE DIVIDES FOOTBALL AND MEDICAL COMMUNITIES

Lewis, who worked for decades as a television sports anchor after retiring as a player in the early 1990s, relayed his own experience to get his message across.

Former Australian rugby league player Wally Lewis, addresses the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on April 23, 2024. Lewis, a legendary rugby player of the 1980s has cited the fear and anxiety that has come into his life among the reason for urging the Australian government to fund support services and education about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). (Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP)

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“The fear is real. I don’t want anyone to have to live with the fear and anxiety that I live with every day, worried about what I’ve forgotten … the fear of what my future will look like,” Lewis said. “And living with the constant fear and anxiety that I’ll let people down – the people who all my life have been able to rely on me and looked to me for my strength and leadership.”

Lewis led Australia’s Kangaroos in 24 international matches, was among the original players to popularize the annual State-of-Origin series, and was included in Australia’s Rugby League Team of the Century in 2008.

The National Rugby League has honored him as a so-called “Immortal” of the game.

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Yet his memories of it aren’t clear. He started playing rugby league as a young boy and also played rugby union at an elite level before embarking on a professional career in rugby league.

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“It’s a journey marked by the twin shadows of fear and embarrassment, a journey through the fog of dementia and the erosion of my memory,” he said. “I once had the confidence in myself to succeed, lead a team to victory, captain my country, remember the strengths and weaknesses of opposition teams, organize myself each and every day and feel well and truly in control of my life.

“Now, much of that confidence has been taken away from me by the effects of probable CTE dementia.”

Lewis said better community awareness on concussion was needed and prevention programs, including a sharper focus on tackling techniques from young players through to professionals.

Awareness of CTE and concussion has grown since players in contact football sports, including the National Football League in the United States and rugby union in Britain, launched concussion lawsuits.

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The Rugby World Cup took place last year against the backdrop of a concussion lawsuit in Britain that had similarities to one settled by the NFL in 2013 at a likely cost of more than $1 billion.

CTE, a degenerative brain disease known to cause violent moods, depression, dementia and other cognitive difficulties, can only be diagnosed posthumously. It has been linked to repeated hits to the head endured by football, rugby and hockey players, boxers and members of the military.

“As Wally Lewis I have influence – I have a platform – and I intend to use it at every opportunity to bring about change for all Australians like me who are impacted by CTE,” Lewis said, “and to do whatever I can to protect the brains of Australian children from CTE.”

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