Do Former Football Players Age Prematurely?

Certain age-related diseases may arise earlier in professional football players, new study finds

Backlight photo of football players in silhouette on playing field
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Former professional football players — particularly linemen — are more likely than nonplayers with similar demographic characteristics to develop diseases typically associated with advanced age when significantly younger, according to new research published Dec. 8 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

These former elite athletes also tend to experience age-related conditions — hypertension and diabetes, among others — earlier, compared with the general population. Looking across all conditions, these athletes’ health spans were reduced by nearly a decade.

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Notably, the effects persisted even after the researchers accounted for body mass index and race, two powerful risk factors for the diseases studied.

The research — based on a survey of nearly 3,000 former National Football League players, representing the largest study cohort of former professional football players to date — was conducted by investigators at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School as part of the ongoing Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, a research program that encompasses a constellation of studies designed to evaluate various aspects of players’ health across their life span.

The findings, the research team said, warrant further study to define the biochemical, cellular, and physiologic mechanisms behind this premature aging phenomenon.

“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," said study senior investigator Rachel Grashow, director of epidemiological research initiatives for the Football Players Health Study.

“Such heightened vigilance can lead to earlier diagnoses and timelier intervention to prevent or dramatically slow the pace of age-related illness.”