TUESDAY, May 26, 2009 (Health.com) — They’re bigger, brawnier, and faster than the typical male, but are National Football League players healthier than other men their age? Yes and no, according to a new NFL-funded study that looks at the cardiovascular health of young athletes.
The good news is that NFL players have cholesterol levels similar to other men in their 20s and 30s, and their blood sugar tends to be even healthier. However, they are much more likely to have high blood pressure or borderline hypertension when compared with men who aren’t professional athletes.
“It’s a step in the right direction to have this study,” says Justin Bannan, 30, who plays defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens and took part in the research. “I think the more information we can find out and the more studies we can do, the better.”
The study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is important, particularly as more and more players are weighing in at 300-plus pounds. The extra weight could potentially strain an athlete’s heart in youth or even after retirement, and many question whether it has played a role in a handful of high-profile deaths.
In particular, the death of Thomas Herrion at age 23 has raised concerns about the heart health of larger players. Herrion, who was 6’3” and 330 pounds, had just finished an exhibition game with the San Francisco 49ers when he collapsed and died in 2005.
“He’s sort of the prototype of the bigger, stronger linemen that populates the NFL now, as compared with 20 or 30 years ago,” says lead study author Andrew M. Tucker, MD, the team physician for the Baltimore Ravens. “We have so many big, strong guys over 300 pounds. I think that case in particular was important in stimulating the whole study and the investigation.”
Other heavy players—such as defensive end Reggie White—have also died at a relatively young age. White was 43 when he died from cardiac arrhythmia in 2004.
Next page: Are performance-enhancing drugs to blame?