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Fitness: Football can take years off player's life, study shows

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announces his retirement in a press conference after the game against the Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium on Aug 24, 2019.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announces his retirement in a press conference after the game against the Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium on Aug 24, 2019.

Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck stunned the football community recently by announcing his retirement at age 29, citing a cascade of injuries that affected his career and quality of life. But those who track the health of football players know that retirement doesn’t mean the end of the physical woes associated with a pro career.

Sometimes the consequences of years playing a sport in which broken bones, torn ligaments and bruised brains are considered “part of the game” are felt early. And sometimes the body waits a few decades before it shows signs of the physical damage that football can reap.

There has been a lot of press devoted to the neurological issues (memory loss and related debilitating diseases like ALS and CTE) that plague football players, but occupational health experts and sport medicine professionals have also been evaluating the overall mortality rates of former NFL players.

The good news is that professional football players live longer than fans who spend more time sitting on the sidelines watching the game than playing the game. But experts suggest that reaching the elite level of sport requires one to be healthier and fitter than the general population, which often translates into a reduced risk of overall mortality.

“Such comparisons (between football players and the general population) have limited ability to distinguish true health risks or benefits attributable to playing a particular sport from pre-existing differences inherent in people who play sports at an elite level,” stated a group of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, who are undertaking a Football Players Health Study.

To get a better picture of how football affects long-term health, they chose to compare NFL players with elite major league baseball players from the MLB .

A similar study comparing the health markers of professional football and baseball players already noted that football players have a higher incidence of head injuries, hypertension and sleep apnea, probably because of the tendency for football players to carry more excess weight than baseball players do. But what the Harvard researchers wanted to find out was whether mortality rates between the two sets of athletes differed.

The Harvard team compiled the statistics they needed from databases of players managed by both sport leagues as well as from the National Death Index (a database that lists the cause of death for U.S. citizens). The entire cohort includes professional athletes (3,419 football players and 2,708 baseball players) who played in the 1960s to the 1980s, had a career the lasted at least five seasons and died between 1979 and 2013.

The differences between the football and baseball players told an interesting story. The football players started their careers about a year and a half earlier than baseball players (21.8 versus 23.3 years old) and died younger. The average age at death for football players was 59.6 years versus 66.7 years for the baseball players. And 73.5 per cent of football players died before reaching 70, compared with just 58.7 per cent of baseball players.

Poor cardiovascular health was attributed to 498 of the deaths in football and 225 deaths in baseball. And neurological disorders were linked to 39 of the deaths in the NFL and only 16 deaths in baseball. There was no difference in the number of deaths attributed to cancer.

The researchers calculate that based on 1,000 NFL players and 1,000 MLB players, there would be four, 10 and 21 more all-cause deaths among NFL players by the ages of 55, 65 and 75 years of age, respectively.

Breaking it down by cardiovascular disease only, 16 more football players died by age 55 and 77 more died by age 75 as compared with baseball players. And by neurological disease, football players logged one more death by age 55 and 11 more deaths by age 75 than baseball players.

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“The results of this study found that NFL players had a significantly elevated rate of all-cause mortality compared with MLB players, driven by elevated rates of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative mortality,” the Harvard researchers said.

It should be noted, however, that the results are based on football players who played several decades ago and don’t reflect the more recent positive changes made to the sport in terms of safety, including improved equipment and rules. Although today’s players may be better protected from injury than their predecessors, it’s unclear whether those changes have made a difference to the long-term health of professional football players.

Still, the study helps direct future considerations when it comes to protecting the health of professional football players and perhaps even college players who are exposed to their fair share of physical knocks during their playing careers. Much of the focus needs to be on improving cardiovascular health and protecting the brain from injury. Healthier diets, avoiding excess weight gain after leaving the game and respecting and improving concussion protocols are just some of the healthy habits football players of all ages should adopt.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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