Lower Mortality in NFL Players--if Weight Is Kept in Check

February 06, 2012

February 6, 2012 (Cincinnati, Ohio) — The lights have dimmed on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN, site of Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, just as new data suggest that retired National Football League (NFL) players have a lower rate of deaths from all-causes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease when compared with the general US population [1].

That said, the reduction in mortality and cardiovascular disease was observed in the smaller players--defensive backs, punters, kickers, quarterbacks, and wide receivers, as well as fullbacks, halfbacks, running backs, tight ends, and linebackers. For the true giants of the gridiron, the linemen, the players often weighing 300 lbs or more, cardiovascular disease mortality was not significantly reduced compared with the US population. The study looked at athletes who were playing professionally 15 to 50 years ago.

"Size continues to be an important factor for these players as it is for the general population," lead researcher Dr Sherry Baron (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cincinnati, OH) told heartwire . "It's of concern because players are only going to continue to get bigger and bigger. The players who are currently playing are much, much, much larger than the players we studied, so it raises concerns about what is likely to happen to players over time. The current notion that bigger is better. What is the significance of that for the player's long-term health?"

In a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press and reported last year in the New York Times, just one NFL player weighed more than 300 lbs in 1970 and only three weighed more than 300 lbs in 1980. By 2009, 394 NFL players tipped the scales on the far side of 300 lbs, while in 2010 more than 500 linemen weighing more than 300 lbs reported to training camp.

Big Back Then, But Even Bigger Now

In a study published online January 13, 2012 in the American Journal of Cardiology, Baron and colleagues reviewed data on 3439 retired NFL players who played between 1959 and 1988. They found that defensive linemen had a 42% higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease than the US population, whereas the offensive linemen did not. Compared with all other players and compared with offensive linemen alone, the defensive linemen had a twofold greater risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

Recent studies of the largest NFL players, such as the defensive linemen, have shown these behemoths can have more than 25% body fat, a percentage that places them at a significantly elevated risk for cardiovascular disease.

In their analysis, Brown and colleagues found that players who played in the NFL with a body-mass index (BMI) exceeding 30 kg/m2 had a doubling of cardiovascular disease mortality risk compared with the other players. African American players, after adjustment for playing-time BMI, were also at a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

For retired football players, especially the larger players, Baron said the same preventive messages should apply as they would to large individuals in the general population.

"It's important to exercise and to lose weight," she Baron. "While players are active, it's likely that the relationship between percent body fat and percent muscle mass would be different from that of somebody of the same size in the general population, but the protective effect of increased conditioning is likely to change over time, because the players in the best of conditions would be unlikely to be as active as when they were playing."

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