As friends and families prepare to gather for Super Bowl Sunday – some to watch the game and others there primarily for the food, commercials and the half-time show, we are increasingly reminded of the dangers of contact sports like football. A recent study from Harvard reports that former professional football players are more likely to develop dementia at a younger age.
Researchers studied nearly 3,000 former NFL football players as part of an ongoing Football Players’ Health Study. The potential for head injuries among professional players, especially linemen, has caused concern recently and led some players to quit the game. More parents are also steering their kids away from football over concerns for their health and well-being as adults. Linemen typically have more physical contact with other players and were found to have significantly shorter lifespans and developed age-related health conditions sooner.
Although previous studies have found that football players may live as long, if not longer than their peers, athletes have also told their doctors they feel older than their age. Retired players often have conditions like dementia, arthritis, hypertension and diabetes; health problems are usually associated with older age. Former players were found to be more likely to report a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in each decade, and younger ex-players between the ages of 25 and 29 were more often diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes.
With greater awareness of the prevalence of these health conditions, former athlete patients can be diagnosed and treated earlier, hopefully slowing the progress of these normally age-related illnesses. Researchers were interested to find out if professional football players were on an “alternate trajectory” that prematurely ages their bodies, increasing the risk for disability and infirmity at a younger age. The findings suggest that American-style football players are at risk for the premature onset of chronic diseases that may hasten aging and increase the risk of mortality. Future work to study the signatures of aging in this population is considered warranted.