A unique comparison of elite professional athletes suggests a higher mortality in NFL players as compared to MLB players. The NFL players also seem to have a higher risk of dying from neurodegenerative and cardiovascular causes. The differences necessitate further study of sport-specific mechanisms of disease development. Doctors treating former and current NFL players should be wary about presence of neurological and cardiovascular symptoms. They should quickly treat risk factors like obesity, sleep apnea and hypertension.
The findings were based on an analysis of death rates plus causes of death in 3,419 NFL and 2,708 MLB players over 30 years time.
Between 1979 and 2013, there were 431 deaths among MLB players and 517 deaths among NFL players. This translates to a 26% higher mortality rate among football players as compared to basketball players. NFL players have a greater likelihood of dying due to neurodegenerative conditions as compared to MLB players. They also had almost 2.5-fold risk of dying of cardiac causes.
There were 225 cardiovascular related deaths in MLB players and 498 deaths in NFL players. The study found 39 deaths due to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and ALS in NFL players. There were 16 of such deaths in MLB players. There were 11 suicides in the NFL players and 5 in the MLB players.
The researchers said that the increased risk would translate into 1 additional death due to neurodegenerative diseases per 1,000 NFL players by the age of 55. This would rise to 11 additional deaths by the age of 75 in comparison to MLB players. Cardiovascular causes would contribute to 16 additional deaths for every 1,000 NFL players by 55 years increasing to 77 additional deaths by 75 years.
Scientists should pursue further study to find the reasons behind the increased mortality. It is important to remember that the number of additional deaths due to neurodegenerative diseases remains low in NFL players.
The researchers said the number of excess deaths due to cardiovascular illness was high. This may be due to different reasons like:
- Higher body-mass index in football players.
- The utter prevalence of cardiovascular diseases.
The findings point to existence of sport-specific differences in sport-related injuries and athlete conditioning as major contributors to disease development. For instance, repetitive head injuries, head trauma and subconcussive blows among NFL players might contribute to certain neurological conditions. Other factors might be football players’ greater body-mass index and overall size.
The researchers used important statistics for their analysis from two national databases. Past studies compared health status and mortality between pro football players and general population. Such comparisons are flawed since football players are healthier than the general public population.
Researchers said that comparing two groups of professional athletes with same levels of conditioning, physical attributes and overall health status shows more meaningful differences in risk attributed to playing one sport in comparison to the other. A life in professional football can have lifelong consequences especially on cardiac and neurologic health.
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- The end game: Mortality outcomes in North American professional athletes.
- Pro Football Players May Die Earlier Than Their Peers, Study Says
- Harvard Medical School. (2019, May 24). Mortality risks among pro athletes: Differences in mortality risk suggest the existence of sport-specific disease mechanisms. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 27, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190524130226.htm