Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
According to new research by the American Heart Association, former NFL players are 6 times more likely to have atrial fibrillation than similarly aged men who did not play football. Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, is a type of irregular heartbeat that results in blood clotting, which increases risk of stroke and heart failure.
Scientists compared 460 former NFL players to 925 non-athletes. Men in both groups were middle aged, and half of the men in each group were African-American. They found that 5% of the former NFL players had atrial fibrillation while only 0.5% of men in the control group had the condition. About 80% of athletes diagnosed during the study were unaware that they had it at all because they did not experience any symptoms.
Interestingly, the African-American men observed in the study had a lower prevalence of AFib. Researchers say that other studies also show lower rates of atrial fibrillation among black individuals. However, age and BMI were associated with a higher risk of AFib among both black and white participants.
Researchers suspect that this high rate may be due to the years of intense training performed by the former football players. This makes sense, because previous studies have also linked endurance sports, such as running and cycling, to higher risk of atrial fibrillation. But this doesn’t mean that physical activity is bad for you.
Dr. Dermot Phelan, who helped lead the study, said: “A sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of [atrial fibrillation], and moderate exercise will reduce that risk.”
Phelan stressed that the high amounts of cardio performed by elite athletes are in fact beneficial. “Athletes have a longer life expectancy,” he said, due to their reduced risk of dying from heart conditions. But in certain athletes, their intense training may put too much stress on the heart, causing an enlarged left atria, which in turn can lead to atrial fibrillation.
Dr. Aaron Baggish, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cardiovascular Performance Program, thinks that high blood pressure may lead NFL athletes to develop heart conditions such as AFib.
“The focus in the media and even in the scientific press for the last decade has really been on neurocognitive health and concussion,” he said. “And while that’s an important issue, that’s not what football players die from. They typically die from heart disease.”
Baggish thinks that one cause of high blood pressure in football players is their use of anti-inflammatory drugs. Used to manage pain, these drugs may be raising their blood pressure and contributing to heart disease.
Dr. Phelan stressed that “former players need to be vigilant” about detecting early symptoms of atrial fibrillation, working together with their doctors. Early detection and monitoring of symptoms can prevent further heart-related issues down the line.
For more information about atrial fibrillation, be sure to check out AtrialFibrillationpedia.