NFL players are aging nearly a decade faster than the general population and suffer from arthritis and high blood pressure as early as their 20s, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School.
The study, published on Thursday, was spurred by reports from retired players of aging faster and clinicians “saying these players looked older than their chronological age when they came in for testing.” , said Rachel Grashow, director of epidemiological research initiatives with Football Players Health. Study at Harvard University.
The researchers compared the results of surveys of 4,000 living former players with similar questions asked of the general public in government surveys. The players were matched with people of the same age, race and body mass index, and their results were compared.
Grashow’s conclusion: “They are almost 10 years ahead of the general population.”
That makes sense for Julius Thomas, 34, whose tight end career began in 2011 with the Denver Broncos and ended in 2017 with the Miami Dolphins.
“We put a strain on our bodies playing this game,” it said USA TODAY.
Thomas, now a doctoral student in health psychology, had five surgeries on his knees, ankle and hand. “You have a few surgeries, you feel a bit older, that’s for sure,” he said. “You can definitely tell when you’ve been under the knife.”
Thomas said he hopes studies like this inspire former players to learn what they can do to reduce the risk of physical problems as they age.
“Studies like this help paint a picture,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity: what more can we do for the players? Educate them, and how can we provide them with services or opportunities to mitigate what could potentially happen?”
Heavy blows lead to early arthritis
More than 20% of NFL retirees are diagnosed with arthritis in their mid to late 20s, compared to 5% of similar men, according to the study. In their 40s, 47% of former players have the condition, compared to 19% of others. The gap then begins to close.
“Arthritis – whatever your age, whatever your age – comes with many other conditions. It comes with chronic pain, use of prescription painkillers, sedentary behavior, ‘limited mobility,’ Grashow said.
Depression is closely associated with chronic pain and medication, she added.
Linemen, who tend to be bigger and take more hits than other players, have even shorter periods of good health and age faster than their peers, according to the study.
“The linemen always hit somebody,” said Ed Reynolds, 61, linebacker for the New England Patriots and New York Giants between 1983 and 1992. “You’re the start of the snap or you’re the other end from where the snapping started. They still bump into each other.
Like others in the study, Reynolds developed arthritis early, which he also attributes to his time in the military.
Diabetes and high blood pressure strike just as early
Former players were also more likely to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure in their second half of their twenties, according to the study. More than 12% of former players suffer from high blood pressure and nearly 7% suffer from diabetes before they turn 30, compared to 6.5% and 1% of other men their age.
Although this disparity reverses later, the damage caused by early hypertension could harm cardiovascular health in the long term, Grashow said.
Now, young former players aren’t often treated for high blood pressure due to their age, but Grashow thinks early treatment could help improve cardiovascular and brain health decades later and ease some of the pain. worry that they might develop memory and other cognitive problems later in life.
Thomas and Reynolds, members of Harvard’s research advisory board, said they hoped the study would help former players become more proactive about their health – getting enough exercise and sleep, eating well, reducing stress.
“You can’t go back if your body has developed a chronic illness or disease, but the impact that illness or disease has on you really depends on how you approach it,” Thomas said.
Some guys leave the field and end up spending even more time in the weight room, while others train less than before. But it’s definitely a different scenario, Thomas said, when “nobody tells you you’re going to get fined if you don’t.”
When he left football, Reynolds said, his medical care changed dramatically. Before, his doctor was the team doctor who was constantly available. But later he had to find his own primary care doctor and make an effort to get seen.
Reynolds, whose eldest son Ed II also played in the NFL, likes the idea that the research will help former players understand how to take better care of themselves.
The changing game
The game in his day was safer in some ways than it is today, said Reynolds, who made $39,500 his first year with the Patriots.
He was in the NFL for four years before being allowed to start. He was called up when an older player was exhausted, giving him a break and giving him short exposure on the pitch. “By the time you got to the starting position, you weren’t as beat up,” Reynolds said. “Today, as soon as you come home, you start right away.”
Other things have changed for the better, he said.
When he was in high school, Reynolds said he ran on asphalt or cinders, not the good tracks available today. Helmets and shoulder pads have also improved dramatically, as has training, “teaching you not to steer with your head,” he said. It all makes a difference to the physical well-being of players, he said. “I firmly believe that is the case.”
Thomas thinks football gets a bad rap for being dangerous. Other sports played at such a high level are also hard on the body, he said, but because football has been better studied, it gets all the attention.
“It’s the first one that’s being investigated,” he said. “There are still a lot of things that are not said.”
Still, Reynolds said, the cost to his body was worth it.
“For all the things that people perceive as negatives, there are so many more positives,” he said. “I consider myself blessed.”
Contact Karen Weintraub at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coverage of patient health and safety at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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