Football players have higher mortality than baseball players: Study

Washington: A new study has revealed that professional football players have a rather increased risk of death, including a higher risk of succumbing to heart and neurodegenerative diseases as compared to professional baseball players of the same age.

The study was published in the ‘JAMA Network Open’.

“A life in pro football may have lifelong consequences, particularly in the domains of cardiac and neurologic health,” said Ross Zafonte, Harvard Medical School.

“This study illuminates the importance of former players taking an active step in seeking a comprehensive health evaluation from their doctor. They should ensure they are closely monitored for both cardiovascular and neurological issues, some of which may be treatable,” added Zafonate.

A comparison between two groups of professional athletes with similar physical characteristics, levels of conditioning and overall health status can tease out more meaningful differences in risk directly attributable to playing one sport versus the other, the investigators said.

“It is critical for scientists and clinicians to pursue further research into teasing out the reasons behind this increased mortality,” said study senior author Marc Weisskopf, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker.
The findings are based on a retrospective analysis of death rates and causes of death in 3,419 NFL (National Football League) and 2,708 MLB (Major League Baseball) players over more than 30 years.

There were 517 deaths among NFL players and 431 deaths among MLB players between 1979 and 2013.
The difference translates into a 26 per cent higher mortality among football players compared with baseball players. NFL players had a nearly threefold greater likelihood of dying of neurodegenerative conditions, compared with MLB players.

They also had a nearly 2.5-fold risk of dying from a cardiac cause, the study showed.

There were 498 deaths stemming from cardiovascular causes among the NFL players and 225 such deaths among MLB players. The study identified 39 deaths from neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and Parkinson’s in NFL players and 16 such deaths in MLB players. There were 11 suicides among the NFL group and five in the MLB group.

Extrapolating these differences into absolute numbers, the researchers said, the elevated risk would translate into one additional death from a neurodegenerative disease per 1,000 NFL players by age 55 rising to 11 additional neurodegenerative deaths by age 75, compared with MLB players.

Cardiovascular causes would account for 16 additional deaths per 1,000 NFL players by age 55 and rising to 77 additional deaths by age 75 in NFL players, compared with MLB players.

The number of excess deaths (77) stemming from cardiovascular illness was markedly higher, which may be due to several factors, including higher body-mass index among football players and the sheer prevalence of cardiovascular illness, the researchers said.

The results point to the existence of sport-specific differences in sport-related injuries and athlete conditioning as important contributors to disease development. For example, football players’ larger overall size and greater body-mass index, which renders them more susceptible to hypertension and sleep apnea, can also be contributors, the researchers added.

For their analysis, the researchers used vital statistics obtained from two national databases–the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for information on NFL players and the Lahman Baseball Database of MLB players.