Retired NFL Players at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

Despite their elite athletic history, former professional football players have not benefited from their fitness and training and may be susceptible to the same risks associated with obesity as the general population. Such were the findings of a study led by Mayo Clinic in Arizona and the Living Heart Foundation in which 201 healthy, retired NFL players between ages 35 and 65 were evaluated for carotid artery plaque. The presence of plaque is a sign of advanced atherosclerosis and is a strong predictor of adverse cardiovascular events.

"The published health data available for retired football players are limited, but as in our study, the data suggest an increased cardiovascular risk in these athletes," says R. Todd Hurst, M.D., Cardiovascular Diseases at Mayo Clinic and lead author of the study that took place between September 2006 and March 2008.

Even though physical activity is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, "It remains unclear whether high body mass index diminishes the benefits gained from being an elite athlete," adds Dr. Hurst.

Linemen, in particular, may be at increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events and death after retirement, according to Dr. Hurst. "The increased body size typical of these men may be of concern, as well as obesity-related conditions such as metabolic syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea that have been reported in professional football players."

Study partner, the Living Heart Foundation, arranged health screening events for retired NFL players in conjunction with Mayo, and all the study participants agreed to participate in the screenings. The Living Heart Foundation is a nonprofit organization that was established by retired cardiac surgeon Arthur Roberts, M.D., whose mission is to combat cardiac health issues in groups such as high school, college and professional sports.

"Large body mass and other factors may mitigate the well established benefits of fitness," explains Dr. Hurst.

Contact: Lynn Closway
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Mayo Clinic