Professional football players have an elevated risk of heart rhythm disorders later in life, according to a research study led by a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist.
A cardiovascular screening of 460 former National Football League (NFL) players found they were more than five times as likely to have a heart rhythm disorder, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib), compared with a sample of 925 people from the general public with similar demographics to the NFL cohort in terms of age and race.
According to the study’s lead investigator, Dermot Phelan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the sports cardiology center at Cleveland Clinic, the findings revealed for the first time an association between athletes in a strength-based sport and increased rates of AFib. Previous studies had found such a relationship among endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners.
“Sporting activity increases longevity and has multiple benefits for the cardiovascular system,” said Dr. Phelan. “But our findings seem to suggest that perhaps when you get to the extreme ends that we see in these elite athletes, there may be a negative impact on the heart.”
Dr. Phelan recently presented the study findings at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session.
In a previous Cleveland Clinic study of retired NFL players authored by Dr. Phelan, results surprisingly revealed that those tested had larger aortas than the average person. The aorta is the main blood vessel carrying blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
That study — published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging — showed NFL players had a two-fold risk of having an enlarged aorta, when compared to the non-athletes. Interestingly, the NFL group had lower levels of hypertension, cholesterol and smoking than might be expected, as high levels are all typically risk factors for an enlarged aorta.
Typically, an enlarged aorta 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.
Noted Dr. Phelan: “Players should not assume that leading a healthy lifestyle in terms of regular exercise means that they’re immune from developing cardiac problems and, in fact, they may be at higher risk for things like atrial fibrillation.” He added that more research is needed to determine how these results relate to outcomes seen in other groups of athletes.
Dr. Phelan also emphasized the need for football players of all ages to get regular medical checkups to identify any early signs of cardiovascular disease.