August 5th, 2011
01:35 PM ET
When a kid goes out for football, you don't think of it putting his life at risk. But maybe you should.
Sad events in recent days – "We think it was the worst week in the last 35 years in terms of athlete death" one expert told CNN - make it feel as if it there's an epidemic of deaths related to high school athletics.
In fact, research from 2010 showed more football players are dying now than in previous years. On average, between 1980 and 1994 there were fewer than two deaths a year. After 1995, the average went up to nearly three deaths a year. The study found a total of 58 football players died between 1980 and 2009. All but 10 were 18 or younger.
Some experts believe a lack of rules for working out is a factor in the deaths. And the climate scientists who conducted the 2010 research, published in the International Journal of Biometeorology, believe they've found clues to why there are now more players dying.
- Players are getting bigger. “Football players at all levels of competition and particularly linemen have increased in size over time” the study says, “the greater size would increase heat storage and therefore the possibility of heat-related illnesses.” The players who died were usually linemen, and the study shows 79 percent had a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) categorizes a BMI more than 30 as obese.
- It’s getting hotter. Several studies have shown climate conditions are getting hotter and more humid. The researchers explain that that means there could be more “stressful meteorological conditions and thus an increased risk for heat-related illnesses.”
- Morning practices, which are often scheduled so players can work out before the heat of the day, didn’t keep players from dying. The study found more than half of the deaths between 1980 and 2009 were during the morning. Higher humidity, which is common in the morning, is the likely reason. “When the humidity is high, sweat won't evaporate as quickly, which keeps your body from releasing heat as fast as it may need to,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.
- Most of the football players died in August, according to the study. Not only is it one of the hottest summer months, but it is when many high school football practices first start. Researchers found “in 13 cases, news reports specifically noted that the death occurred within the first 3 days of practice” when players are less conditioned, and are more apt to be less accustomed to working out in the heat. An earlier study in Alabama found that “there were no environmental combinations at any time periods during the month of August for any locale in the state that would be considered safe for outdoors practice in full uniform”
- Even when players are not wearing full uniforms they are still at risk of dying. The 2010 study found, “Many of the deaths, however, were among players wearing no pads and minimal clothing.” They explained the likely reason is workouts in less clothing tend to take place in earlier practices when players are not accustomed to the hot and humid conditions.
To prevent these deaths, the researchers say, coaches need to monitor players, the temperature, and especially the humidity carefully.
The CDC lists signs of the deadly heatstroke which parents, players, and coaches can look out for. They include: stopping sweating, having hot and dry skin, a rapid strong pulse, a throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and unconsciousness. Anyone suspected of heat stroke needs emergency help. The CDC says while waiting on paramedics you can get the victim out of the sun and cool them by spraying them with water.
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