Study: Former NFL Players Have Abnormally Large Aortas

A new Cleveland Clinic study shows retired NFL players have larger aortas than the average person. Led researcher Dermot Phelan, M.D., Ph.D., explains.

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CLEVELAND – Some professional athletes are known for having big hearts – and there’s research to prove it.

Studies show some athletes have larger hearts and thicker heart muscles as a result of high intensity exercise.

Now, a new study published in the journal Circulation shows retired National Football League players have larger aortas than the average person too. The aorta is the main blood vessel carrying blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

“The surprising result of all of this was the actual overall average size of the aorta in the NFL group which was really much bigger than we anticipated going into the study,” said Dermot Phelan, M.D., Ph.D., of Cleveland Clinic, who authored the study.

Cleveland Clinic researchers studied 206 retired NFL players with an average age of 56.

Heart scans of the former players were compared to heart scans of a group of non-athletes.

Results show NFL players in the study had a two-fold risk of having an enlarged aorta, when compared to the non-athletes.

Interestingly, the NFL group also had lower levels of hypertension, cholesterol and smoking, which are all risk factors for an enlarged aorta.

In addition, researchers found that linemen in the study had slightly larger aortas versus players who play other positions.

Dr. Phelan said this may be due to intense weight lifting that causes short bursts of high blood pressure and stresses the aorta.

Typically, an enlarged aorta in an average person is a risk factor for developing a tear in the vessel wall, which can be life threatening – but more research is needed to know if the same is true for elite athletes.

“Until we know more about what this means we should be cautious and continue to monitor these folks more closely than we would normally,” said Dr. Phelan.

Complete results of the study can be found in the journal Circulation.

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