Football player versus scientist in study of sport concussions

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BOSTON — Football has gone under the microscope in recent years when it comes to how dangerous the sport is, especially because of the potential for head injuries. The focus on CTE and how the condition has destroyed former players’ lives is leading more parents to keep their kids off the gridiron, and even pushing some players themselves to quit entirely. Now, new research from Harvard reports that former professional players, specifically linemen, are more likely to develop diseases generally developed by those of older age, even though they’re still young.

The team of investigators from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School based their work on a survey of almost 3,000 former NFL players. The survey is part of the ongoing Football Players Health Study conducted at Harvard University, which is a research program that includes several different studies that follow player health over their lifespan.

Previous studies have reported the opposite of the findings from this work, suggesting that former professional football players not only live as long, but even longer than men of a similar demographic. Despite this, athletes have self-reported to their providers that they often physically feel older than they actually are. Moreover, sports medicine physicians have treated players who have conditions like dementia, arthritis, hypertension, and diabetes, which are usually diseases that come with age.

Given the conflicting results, the research team surveyed 2,864 Black and White former professional football players between the ages of 25 and 59 to study whether a health care provider had ever told them that they had the above-listed age-related conditions. They also used the data to measure how long the athletes lived without developing any of the conditions.

The team compared their results to the general population by using data from thousands of men aged 25 to 59 who aren’t football players.

Although they found that incidences of all conditions increased with age in both the players and general population, they noticed that disease prevalence was different between the groups. Former players were more likely to report a diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in each decade, while just younger ones between the ages of 25 and 29 were more often diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes.

‘Football prematurely weathers players and puts them on alternate aging trajectory’

“Our analysis raises important biological and physiological questions about underlying causes but, just as importantly, the results should serve as an alarm bell telling clinicians who care for these individuals to pay close attention even to their relatively younger former athlete patients,” says study senior investigator Rachel Grashow,  director of epidemiological research initiatives for the Football Players Health Study, in a statement. “Such heightened vigilance can lead to earlier diagnoses and timelier intervention to prevent or dramatically slow the pace of age-related illness.”

The team then sought after potentially game-related aspects that could play significant roles in the development of these diseases. To do this, they split the football player group into linemen and non-linemen.

“We wanted to know: Are professional football players being robbed of their middle age? Our findings suggest that football prematurely weathers them and puts them on an alternate aging trajectory, increasing the prevalence of a variety of diseases of old age,” Grashow said. “We need to look not just at the length of life but the quality of life. Professional football players might live as long as men in the general population, but those years could be filled with disability and infirmity.” Upon analyzing the results, they found that linemen, who generally have more contact with other players, had significantly shorter lifespans across all decades, developing age-related conditions sooner.

Grashow and team agree that more studies are needed in the future, and that theirs will focus on the biological mechanisms involved in early aging among football players.

The findings are published in the journal British Journal of Sports Medicine.

About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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