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Increased Heart Risk Seen for Retired NFL Players

Screening should begin in high school, researchers say

SUNDAY, March 30 (HealthDay News) -- Retired National Football League players have an increased risk of heart problems, say researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

They added that screening for cardiovascular conditions among elite-level football players should begin in high school and continue throughout the lives of college and professional players.

The Mayo team examined the cardiovascular health of 233 retired NFL players, aged 35 to 65. They did this by measuring the internal diameter of the carotid (neck) artery and by assessing levels of plaque deposits that can block blood flow.

The researchers found that 82 percent of the retired players under age 50 had abnormal narrowing and blockages in their arteries greater than the 75th percentile of the general population. That means these retired players may be at increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke.

These retired players hadn't been diagnosed with heart disease and they showed no signs of cardiovascular trouble, such as chest pain during exertion. Because they had no diagnosis or symptoms, the players weren't aware they were at serious risk of heart attack or stroke, or that they needed to make lifestyle changes or start medical therapy to improve their cardiovascular health.

The high incidence of plaque in the players' blood vessels suggests the increased narrowing of arteries is not solely due to increased body-mass index, and further research is needed to explain this, the researchers said.

The study, which was to be presented Sunday at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting in Chicago, is one of the largest studies to take a close look at cardiovascular health in retired NFL athletes. The findings add to growing evidence of poor heart health among these athletes and suggest that young competitive players may benefit from regular cardiovascular screening, the researchers said.

"What we hope to emphasize with our findings is that all NFL players, retired or not, need to undergo cardiovascular health evaluation because they may have changes in heart and vessel conditions that we can treat so they don't experience problems later in life," lead researcher and cardiologist Dr. Robert Hurst said in a prepared statement.

"Cardiovascular screening is readily available and needs to become a routine part of serious football players' health care, beginning at the high school level for those who engaged in a highly competitive and rigorous level of training and play," added Dr. Bijoy Khandheria, chairman of cardiovascular diseases at Mayo Clinic.

"Effective therapies are available to help players avoid serious cardiovascular problems later in life, but players need to take that first step of seeking out screening programs to identify those at risk," Khandheria said in a prepared statement.

Previous studies have found that:

  • Retired NFL players are more prone to obesity and obstructive sleep apnea than the general population.
  • Retired NFL players have an increased rate of metabolic syndrome, a condition increasingly linked with lack of activity and being overweight that can lead to type 2 diabetes.
  • Linemen have a higher death rate than people in the general population.

More information

The American Heart Association outlines common cardiovascular diseases.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Mayo Clinic, news release, March 30, 2008

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