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Football players face damage to the cardiovascular system and brain

Posted Oct 21 2010 12:54pm

Body size is known to be inversely related to longevity – both tall stature and large weight have been linked to increased early-life mortality in epidemiological studies. [1, 2]

So it makes sense that football linemen maintaining a high body mass for competitive reasons would likely be sacrificing years of life for their large size. Indeed, retired NFL linemen are said to have an increased rate of premature death, specifically cardiovascular death. [3, 4] A contrasting hypothesis states that football linemen’s high level of exercise would protect them from the cardiovascular risks associated with their large size. However, recent research has found that they are not protected.

Cardiovascular and metabolic parameters were compared in current professional football players and baseball players. The baseball players did show an increased prevalence of hypertension compared to the general U.S. population, but otherwise had favorable levels of cardiovascular risk factors. However, the football players, linemen in particular, had higher rates of obesity, hyperglycemia, and cardiometabolic syndrome (defined as 3 or more risk factors) compared to baseball players. Linemen also had increased rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, glucose intolerance , and obesity compared to the general U.S. population. [5, 6] The researchers concluded that these large athletes are not in peak physical condition – their time spent exercising heavily does not outweigh the negative health effects of their large size.

"For the population in general, the concept that you can be both fat and fit may simply not be true." According to Dr. John Helzberg of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, one of the researchers.

The researchers also expressed concern that the next generation of players, now high school and college athletes, will be encouraged to grow larger to be more competitive, to the detriment of their future health. [7]. We also know that the high animal protein intake utilized to get that large dramatically increases IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) and the link between increased IGF-1 and cancer. [8, 9]

In addition, high school football players may already be compromising their brain health because of the repeated head trauma inherent in their chosen sport. Motion of the brain within the skull can damage nerve cells and synapses, and a research group at Purdue University hypothesized that there may be additive effects of repeated head trauma even if individual impacts do not produce any symptoms. They conducted a complex study using helmet-based sensors, video, cognitive tests, and functional MRI (fMRI) to determine neurological changes in high school football players due to head trauma.

Data from the helmet sensors reported forces of up to 100 G sustained upon impact – for reference, most rollercoasters expose riders to forces of only 5 G. Players that showed symptoms (concussion) were expected to have neurological changes, and indeed did. Notably though, of the players who received a high number of or unusually hard impacts, half of those that showed no symptoms still suffered cognitive impairments, based on cognitive tests and fMRI performed before, during, and after the season. They showed deficits in visual working memory and also altered activation in a part of the brain in close proximity to the most frequent area of impact. This is a significant finding - players that didn’t have any symptoms likely went on playing after hard impacts, not realizing they risk further head trauma and further and more serious neurologic injury and intellectual deterioration. [10, 11]

The human body must be properly cared for in order to remain healthy. Similar to consistently eating a low-nutrient diet, growing the body unnaturally large and subjecting the head to repeated hard impacts may not produce immediate symptoms, but set the stage for future disease.




1. Samaras, T.T. and H. Elrick, Height, body size, and longevity: is smaller better for the human body? West J Med, 2002. 176(3): p. 206-8.
2. Samaras, T.T., L.H. Storms, and H. Elrick, Longevity, mortality and body weight. Ageing Res Rev, 2002. 1(4): p. 673-91.
3. Croft, L.B., et al., Comparison of National Football League linemen versus nonlinemen of left ventricular mass and left atrial size. Am J Cardiol, 2008. 102(3): p. 343-7.
4. Selden, M.A., J.H. Helzberg, and J.F. Waeckerle, Early cardiovascular mortality in professional football players: fact or fiction? Am J Med, 2009. 122(9): p. 811-4.
5. Helzberg, J.H., et al., Comparison of cardiovascular and metabolic risk factors in professional baseball players versus professional football players. Am J Cardiol, 2010. 106(5): p. 664-7.
6. Selden, M.A., et al., Cardiometabolic abnormalities in current National Football League players. Am J Cardiol, 2009. 103(7): p. 969-71.
7. American College of Gastroenterology (2009, October 30). For Big Athletes, Possible Future Risk: Heightened Cardiometabolic Risk Factors Among Professional Football Linemen. ScienceDaily. . 2009.
8. Allen, N.E., et al., Hormones and diet: low insulin-like growth factor-I but normal bioavailable androgens in vegan men. Br J Cancer, 2000. 83(1): p. 95-7.
9. Kaaks, R., Nutrition, insulin, IGF-1 metabolism and cancer risk: a summary of epidemiological evidence. Novartis Found Symp, 2004. 262: p. 247-60; discussion 260-68.
10. Purdue University (2010, October 8). Brain changes found in high school football players thought to be concussion-free. ScienceDaily. . 2010.
11. Talavage, T.M., et al., Functionally-Detected Cognitive Impairment in High School Football Players Without Clinically-Diagnosed Concussion. J Neurotrauma, 2010.


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