Ex-NFL players at higher risk of heart trouble
Ex-NFL players at higher risk of heart trouble, studies say
By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
There's new evidence that living large, and particularly bulking up to play football, increases the risk for heart disease.
Two studies of nearly 400 retired National Football League players show that more than half of the game's biggest men _ the linemen _ suffer from heightened risk factors for heart disease and are 54 percent more likely to have enlarged hearts than other former players.
The results, presented Saturday during the annual scientific meeting of the American Society of Echocardiography in Baltimore, are part of mounting evidence that football's super-sized competitors are at increased risk of illness and death related to their weight.
"NFL linemen are required to increase their size and strength to remain competitive, which may expose them to risks later in life," said Dr. Martin Goldman, director of the echocardiography lab at the Mount Sinai Heart Center and a professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a senior author of both studies.
A Scripps Howard News Service study of deaths among more than 3,850 active and retired pro football players born since 1905, published in January, found that the heaviest athletes were more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthday than their teammates. Looking at the deaths of 130 players born before 1955, the study found that 77 were obese and a fifth died of heart disease.
Another study, done for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, found that retired NFL linemen have a three times greater risk of dying from heart disease than players at other positions.
Data for the latest studies were compiled by the Living Heart Foundation, a national non-profit heart health screening program set up for professional, college and high school football players five years ago by retired heart surgeon and NFL quarterback Dr. Archie Roberts.
Roberts, a backup quarterback for the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins in the mid-1960s while he was also a medical student, set up the foundation after he himself suffered a mild stroke. He had been largely ignoring his own weight gain and high cholesterol.
Since 2003, the foundation, in cooperation with the NFL Players Association, has done screenings of about 700 retired players, with test data from about 400 used in the new studies.
"These studies affirm what we have long believed, that retired NFL athletes may want to consider having heart ultrasound tests and metabolic screenings to detect cardiovascular health problems before they become advanced and more likely to harm these former players," Roberts said.
For one study, the researchers analyzed echocardiograph results from 210 non-linemen and 93 linemen and found that the linemen were 54 percent more likely to have an enlarged heart. Many athletes who undergo vigorous conditioning, from high school through the professional ranks, develop enlarged hearts in the left ventricular and left atrial areas, which are considered risk factors for heart disease, stroke and death in the general population.
"This is just a snapshot of one exam in these retired players, but the results for the linemen are still significant,' said Dr. Lori Croft, deputy director of the Mount Sinai lab. "The literature suggests that in many athletes, the enlargement of the heart regresses after the intensive workouts end. But this study shows thicker hearts persisting in many retired NFL players. The average age of the study group was 53, so most of the players had been out of the game for at least 10 or 15 years."
While not even all retired athletics need to have the ultrasound tests, the study demonstrates that the tests can reveal persistent problems, the researchers said.
The second study evaluated 252 non-linemen and 130 linemen for metabolic syndrome, a group of heart disease risk factors that include high blood pressure, obesity based on body mass index, poor cholesterol profiles and insulin resistance.
Among the general population, 21.8 percent of adults have metabolic syndrome. Among the retired linemen, 50.7 percent met the criteria, while the non-linemen actually fell slightly below average at 20.3 percent.
"Waistlines are expanding in the NFL and in the non-athlete population," Croft said. "There are a lot of big people out there. If people see this can happen to elite athletes, they may realize this can happen to anyone.
"Football players aren't unique in thinking they don't need to worry about cholesterol or blood pressure until they're in their 60s or 70s. If these results lead to greater awareness of this threat and lifestyle changes among athletes or non-athletes to address it, we'll be getting a payoff from this."
On the Net: www.asecho.org
(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)SHNS.com.)
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