BOSTON — Serious injury and health issues among current professional football players are always a topic of concern among doctors and those who play the sport. However, a recent study by a team at Harvard Medical School is revealing a surprising link between head injuries on the gridiron and high blood pressure when NFL players retire. Specifically, researchers say concussions may lead to hypertension years after pro athletes stop playing.
“If players, families, and physicians are aware of the cardiovascular effects of head injury, we have a better chance of protecting both their cardiovascular health and long-term cognitive health,” says Rachel Grashow, the director of epidemiological research initiatives for the Football Players Health Study, in a university release.
Grashow shared that research on cognitive decline in former professional football players has focused on the condition as it relates to repeated concussions, which is a huge risk that comes with the high-contact sport. Meanwhile, cardiovascular disease is a top killer of adults in general and is also the leading cause of death and disability for former football players as well. Out of all causes of cardiovascular conditions, hypertension is the most common one, which can damage blood vessels in different parts of the body, even the brain. This ultimately leads to cognitive decline.
In order to determine if concussions could be independently linked with hypertension, Grashow and her team used survey data from over 4,000 former NFL players, representing the largest study cohort of former pro football players to date. This project was completed as part of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, which is a research program that includes numerous studies designed to evaluate different aspects of players’ health across their lifespan.
They analyzed known risk factors for hypertension that could apply to anyone, such as diabetes, obesity, age, and smoking. They also looked at the number of seasons played, field position, years since playing, and occurrences of 10 common concussion symptoms. The team also used symptoms to calculate a concussion symptom score (CSS).
“By identifying those at increased risk for hypertension based on their history of head injuries, we could intervene with therapies that not only protect their hearts and blood vessels, but also their brains,” says Aaron Baggish, professor of medicine at the University of Lausanne, a senior faculty member at the Football Players Health Study, and former director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cardiovascular Performance Program.
Researchers found that as the symptom scores rose, the likelihood of being diagnosed with hypertension did as well, even after the risks of hypertension were accounted for. Grashow says that although the exact connection hypertension has to concussions is unclear, it’s possible that repeat concussions induce chronic inflammation, elevating blood pressure. The next step is doing more research to find a clear mechanism for this.
The findings are published in the journal Circulation.