NFL players develop enlarged hearts from years of intense strength-training – and it could cause health woes DECADES after retiring
- About 12 percent of former NFL players studied were found to have men had left ventricular hypertrophy, which is when the left ventricle of the heart thickens
- Larger players who did strength-based training were more likely to have the condition that smaller players who focused on speed-based training
- Players with uncontrolled hypertension were 1.5 times more likely to have LVH
‘Athlete’s heart’ may plague NFL players decades after they retire from football, a new study finds.
The condition, an enlarged heart caused by intensive strength training, is often brushed off by players and coaches as a fleeting issue with no long-term impact.
But new research by Tulane University School of Medicine maps out how this enlargement can trigger other changes in the body, driving up the risks of hypertension, sleep apnea and heart disease years later.
The risk is highest for bigger players who prioritize strength-training over endurance training – such as quarterbacks, linemen, linebackers and tight ends.
Positions that went through training more focused on speed and agility – including wide receivers, cornerbacks, safeties and kickers – were less likely to have the condition.
Researchers say that former NFL players with the largest body sizes who underwent more strength training have a higher risk of heart abnormalities. Pictured: File image of Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith being sacked by Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett
DailyMail.com reached out to the NFL for comment but has not heard back.
‘In spite of the fact that these guys were, at one point, incredibly active and in incredibly good cardiovascular shape, down the line they may still end up having some significant cardiovascular abnormalities,’ lead author Dr Genevieve Smith said.
‘What we don’t know is whether the changes we’re seeing later in life are related to the high blood pressure or to the “athlete’s heart” that they had when they were professional players.’
‘Athlete’s heart’ results in an enlarged heart with a slower resting rate than normal.
One sign is left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH), which is when the walls of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, thickens.
LVH is not a disease itself, but it is often a marker for heart disease.
For the study, which is part of a larger study on football players’ health, researchers studied more than 1,100 former players.
SLEEP APNEA COULD BE A RED FLAG FOR AN ENLARGED HEART
Scientists at Tulane University School of Medicine conducted a separate study to see if sleep apnea could be linked to LVH.
Sleep apnea occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep.
Symptoms include loud snoring, waking up with a dry mouth and gasping for air during sleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of high blood pressure and, in turn, the risk of heart disease.
The team had the roughly 1,100 former NFL players answer an eight-question questionnaire.
Retired players that said they had symptoms associated with sleep apnea were more likely to have LVH and high blood pressure.
Dr Genevieve Smith says a questionnaire that checks for symptoms is an inexpensive tool that can be administered during a check-up and can flag any patients that should be tested for cardiovascular problems.
They looked at echocardiograms and images of their hearts as well as blood pressure readings.
Findings showed that about 12 percent of the men had LVH, which is about the same rate found among US adults.
The rate was highest among former football players with hypertension, who had more than double (1.5 times) the risk of LVH than those without hypertension.
Crucially, they found time out of the game made no difference: the risk was the same for men who had recently retired from the NFL compared to those who hadn’t played for more than two decades.
One concern, said Dr Smith, is that once the seeds are sewn for LVH, it may continue to develop after retirement.
Another theory is that, if it does subside, it returns again when they develop high blood pressure.
‘Because of their years of athletic training at the most elite level, there tends to be an expectation that former professional players would have fewer cardiovascular issues, but there’s a growing body of research that suggests that’s not the case,’ said Dr Smith.
‘Our study suggests we need to be vigilant in monitoring players’ cardiovascular health, because we don’t yet truly understand the long-term consequences of high-performance athletics.’
The study will be presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 68th Annual Scientific Session, which is being held March 16-18 in New Orleans.