In recent years, the conversations around head injuries related to contact sports have grown. Emerging studies continue to examine the long-term effects of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and how it destroys the lives of wrestlers and football players, as well as those around them.
While these studies mostly examine the link between contact sports, CTE and aggressive behavioral issues, a recent study out of Harvard is looking at how playing professional football may trigger premature aging and increase the risk of players developing age-related disorders, even when they’re still young.
Does Playing Football Accelerate Aging?
It may be the wear and tear on their bodies, or perhaps it’s the pressure that they have to endure being in the public eye. Whatever it is, athletes have admitted to their healthcare providers that they often feel older than they actually are. Now, while previous research has indicated that athletes do live as long as or longer than other men in the general population, this doesn’t mean that they’re living a high-quality life.
To properly address these conflation reports, researchers from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School set out to examine the relationship between age, healthspan, and chronic illness among former professional American-style football players.
For the study, the Harvard researchers surveyed 2864 black and white former professional football players. The players were between the ages of 25 and 59, and they were asked if a healthcare provider had ever diagnosed them with dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, hypertension, or diabetes.
The researchers used the survey data to measure the participants’ health spans, as well as how long they lived without developing any of the aforementioned age-related conditions. The data came from the Football Players Health Study – an ongoing research program at Harvard University.
The team then compared the survey findings to the general population by using data from thousands of male participants, aged 25 to 59, who aren’t football players.
Retired Football Players Are Aging Prematurely
“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,” – Rachel Grashow, study senior investigator and director of epidemiological research initiatives for the Football Players Health Study.
The study’s findings, published in the BMJ Journal of Sports Medicine, found that the healthspan of each former player’s age group closely resembled that of men a decade older.
The study also found that football players were less likely to demonstrate an absence of chronic disease than the general population across all age ranges.
While the participants’ brain health was good in their 40s, this changed by the age of 65. It is around this age that former football players performed poorly in reaction time, executive function, and spatial navigation. This may be why players were more likely to report a diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in each decade.
In regards to other age-related conditions, the study showed that all four conditions increased with age in both the former football players and the general population.
That said, 47% of former players were diagnosed with arthritis in their 40s, compared to 19% of others. Additionally, over 12% of former players have high blood pressure and nearly 7% have diabetes before they turn 30, compared to 6.5% and 1% of other men their age. While the study noted that this disparity later reverses, an hypertension diagnosis early in life may cause long-term harm to cardiovascular health.
The worst position to play
For the study, the research team also looked at what positions the athletes played. They found that linemen, who typically have more physical contact with other players during a game, had shorter lifespans.
This was across all ages, and they also developed age-related diseases sooner than players who were not linemen.
The future of the game
“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.
Such heightened vigilance can lead to earlier diagnoses and timelier intervention to prevent or dramatically slow the pace of age-related illness.” – Rachel Grashow
Yes, more studies are needed to not only better understand how football players experience premature aging, but to also show which interventions can help them live healthier lives.
Julius Thomas is a former football player and current doctoral student, as well as a member of the Harvard research advisory board. Speaking to USA Today, Thomas said he hopes that the study’s findings will be enough to encourage former players to make better health choices,
“You can’t go back if your body’s developed a chronic illness or disease, but the impact that illness or disease has on you is really dependent on how you approach it.”
MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Lucas Andrade
Grashow R, Shaffer-Pancyzk TV, Dairi I, et al. (2022). Healthspan and chronic disease burden among young adult and middle-aged male former American-style professional football playersBritish Journal of Sports Medicine. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-106021