Risk and Causes of Death among Former National Football League Players (1986–2012)

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Abstract

Purpose

Previous research identified decreased overall and cardiovascular mortality for National Football League (NFL) players from the 1959–1988 era. The present study explored the mortality risk among recent NFL players who played in an era of heavier linemen and nearly year-round physical conditioning.

Methods

This cohort study included 9778 former NFL players with at least 1 yr in the NFL whose last season was between 1986 and 2012. Players’ pension fund records were matched to the National Death Index to determine vital status, date of death, and cause of death. Standardized mortality ratios (SMR) compared player mortality through 2014 with US men of the same age, race, and calendar year. Cox proportional hazards models assessed the effect of player characteristics on overall and cardiovascular mortality.

Results

Two percent (n = 227) of players were deceased, with a median age at death of 38 yr (range, 23–61 yr). The most common major causes of death were diseases of the heart (n = 47; 21%), violence (n = 39; 17%), and transportation injuries (n = 34; 15%). Risk of death was significantly lower than the general population for overall mortality (SMR, 0.46, 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.40–0.52), cardiovascular disease (SMR, 0.65; 95% CI, 0.50–0.84), and other major causes. Players with playing-time body mass index (BMI) of >35 kg·m−2 had significantly higher cardiovascular disease mortality (SMR, 2.20; 95% CI, 1.32–3.44) than did the general population and higher overall mortality risk (standardized rate ratio, 3.84; 95% CI, 2.66–5.54) than did players with a BMI of <30 kg·m−2.

Conclusions

Consistent with an earlier NFL cohort and other elite athlete populations, the overall and cardiovascular mortality risk of this NFL cohort was significantly lower than that of the general US male population, likely attributable to a healthy worker effect and less smoking.

Conclusions

However, players with the highest playing-time BMI exhibited elevated cardiovascular mortality risk.

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