More than concussions: Football players also face increased cardiovascular risks, according to study

Data presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session revealed that football players develop “structural changes in the heart and face an elevated risk of heart rhythm disorders later in life.”

Even though earlier studies have determined similarly increased rates of atrial fibrillation (AFib) in endurance athletes like long-distance runners, this study is the first of its kind to confirm a link with athletes who take part in a strength-based sport.

Dr. Dermot Phelan, director of the sports cardiology center at Cleveland Clinic, explained that sports can indeed help athletes live longer and that it offers various health benefits benefits for the cardiovascular system. However, their findings imply that when sports causes overexertion, like in elite athletes, it can also result in a negative impact on cardiovascular health. (Related: Those with a high cardiovascular risk profile should eat dark chocolate with olive oil, new study finds.)

Dr. Phelan, who spearheaded the study focused on former NFL players, added that players mustn’t assume that living a healthy lifestyle, at least when it comes to regular exercise, guarantees that they will be immune from heart disease risks. He warned that athletes may even be at higher risk for conditions such as AFib.

Phelan et al. organized a cardiovascular screening for 460 former NFL players, and the results revealed that NFL players had a 5.5-times higher likelihood of AFib compared with non-athletes, along with other signs of abnormal electrical impulses in the heart.

Dr. Phelan said that since the athletes had a low resting heart rate, several players did not get the rapid heart rate that usually warns people that they have atrial fibrillation. He continued that most of the participants didn’t realize their condition until the screening study. Dr. Phelan also stressed the importance of getting regular checkups to ensure that they are maintaining a proper heart rhythm.

The symptoms of AFib include chest pain, dizziness, and heart palpitations. The condition also increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. Dr. Phelan et al. did not assess the impacts of AFib for this study.

For the study on college football players, researchers from Emory University conducted two cardiovascular tests: echocardiography and vascular applanation tonometry. The latter is a study tool that assesses function and arterial stiffness. The tests were done both before and after a complete college football season on 136 freshman football players and 44 college freshmen who did not play the sport.

The results of the study also backed findings from earlier studies, wherein football players, especially larger lineman position players, who often “develop higher systolic blood pressure, increases in vascular stiffening, and thickening of the left ventricle.” These changes are possibly beyond those detected following normal intense exercise training.

Dr. Jonathan Kim, primary study author, chief of sports cardiology, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University and lead cardiologist for the Atlanta Falcons, said that the findings for this study indicate that the health of young football players must be closely monitored. He added that further research must try to uncover the clinical significance of the study’s results.

Both Drs. Phelan and Kim stated that further study can help uncover the underlying mechanisms related to the outcomes observed in their studies. Other studies can also help figure out whether their results are linked to those observed in other groups of athletes. They both highlighted the need for football players of all ages to sign up for regular medical checkups to diagnose any early signs of heart disease.

Food that can lower risk of heart disease

Try eating some of the foods below to lower your risk of heart disease, especially if you regularly participate in strength-based sports like football:

  • Eat fish weekly — Consuming fish regularly can help lower the risk of AFib, a major cause of sudden death.
  • Eat dishes with beans or peas four times a week — Eating legumes regularly can help lower risk of heart disease by 22 percent.
  • Make some vegetable-and-chicken stir-fry with hazelnuts — Adding 1.5 ounces of hazelnuts can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Put one ounce of ground flaxseed on your cereal or yogurt daily — Flaxseed contains at least two grams (g) of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats help prevent heart disease.

You can read more articles about natural ways to prevent heart disease at

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