Health tips for football fans and players
Fans of the New England Patriots, one of the teams playing in Super Bowl XLVI.
February 3rd, 2012
11:12 AM ET

Health tips for football fans and players

Dr. David Agus, M.D. is the author of "The End of Illness."

This Sunday, more than 100 million people are going to tune into the Super Bowl as the New York Giants take on the New England Patriots in Indianapolis. They will be watching more than just an American tradition at play - they will be witnessing one of the deadliest sports in history, whose record of premature deaths demonstrates in sobering reality the silent killer in all of us: inflammation.

Consider the following:

  • Heavy (overweight) NFL players are twice as likely to die before the age of 50.
  • 28% of all pro football players born in the last century who qualified as obese died before their 50th birthday, compared with 13% who were less overweight.
  • One of every 69 players born since 1955 is now dead; 22% of those players died of heart diseases; 19% died from homicides or suicides.
  • The average weight in the NFL has grown by 10% since 1985 to a current average of 248 pounds. The heaviest position, offensive tackle, went from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds.
  • In 2011, scientists at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine found that 35% of 513 retired NFL players scored poorly enough on a test for Alzheimer’s symptoms to indicate dementia.

I’ve never been a football player, and I’ve never seriously participated in a contact sport. But I know that lots of others do, if just in an amateur setting. There are lots of lessons to be learned here, whether you’re an athlete and sports fan or not. Last week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s hourlong special “Big Hits, Broken Dreams” revealed the sad consequences of many concussions suffered by NFL players. This side of the football story is just getting started.

Without a doubt, we can point fingers at excess weight and, as a result, premature heart disease as a potent killer among football players. Body size is well documented to be inversely related to longevity. It makes sense that football linemen maintaining a high body mass for competitive reasons would probably be sacrificing years of life for their large size.

Although it would seem logical to say that a football player’s high level of exercise could protect him from cardiovascular risks associated with large size, this just doesn’t prove to be the case. The pros of physical activity cannot cancel or supersede the cons of excess weight. Several studies have confirmed this, for large athletes are not in peak physical condition - their time spent exercising heavily does not outweigh the negative health effects of their large size. This research has shot down the concept that you can be both fat and fit. Excess weight is thought to be so damaging because of the hidden march of inflammation.

Whether we’re considering the detrimental effects of excessive body weight or routine hits from other players, the common denominator here is inflammation, a normal part of our bodies’ natural defense mechanism against invaders and injury. Too much inflammation can be harmful; when it runs rampant or goes awry, it can disrupt the immune system and lead to chronic problems and disease.

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In all of the symptoms that football players exhibit as a consequence of their profession, the one that surely keeps on going is inflammation, which for many of them sets in motion a sequence of biological events that can lead to a heart attack. Long after a football player has hung up his helmet, his body is trying to heal itself, and that pathway back to health probably entails some inflammation.

Last year, NFL Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon died two days after being hospitalized for a stroke. He was 56. Though he was far from the image of an obese man who looked dangerously close to having a sudden cardiac event, the inflammation he’d endured years ago on the field had other consequences. Would he have died had he not been a football player? We’ll never know, but the facts of his profession’s history share a similar, grim theme.

In addition to the increased risk for heart attack and stroke among those who suffer chronic inflammation, people can also up their risk for all of our most troubling degenerative diseases today, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes and accelerated aging.

Once you understand that blocking unnecessary inflammation as much as you can is key, the next question becomes: How do you know where and why it’s happening and attempt to control it? Most of us are not football players, and we’re probably not living like nuns, who lead pretty healthy lives by virtue of their calling’s abstemious lifestyle. In fact, because of their strict schedules and lifestyles, Roman Catholic nuns live longer than those in any other job - an average of 86 years.

We’re hard at work in other settings and wearing different uniforms. But inflammation comes into our lives in a way pretty regularly that typically has nothing to do with our jobs. It strikes when we subject our bodies to irregular routines, eat off schedule and don’t get enough sleep. It also strikes when we get sick. Battling a cold or flu entails a bout with inflammation as our bodies fight to rid us of the infection and return to “normal.” I’m a big believer in flu vaccines; if not to prevent the flu, then to at least prevent the marked increases of inflammation that can come back to haunt us later in life when we grow ever more vulnerable to diseases rooted in inflammation.

In addition to keeping a regular schedule on a daily basis, I’m also a big proponent of simply wearing good shoes. When I tell my patients and friends to wear good, comfortable shoes, my advice is as simple and straightforward as it sounds. If the goal is to reduce your overall inflammation and take the load off your joints and lower back to further reduce this inflammation, then I know of no better, easier way to do this than to simply wear a good pair of shoes daily. I love my Nikes and Pumas, and for dress shoes I find inserts that make the cushion all the more supportive and comfortable. This isn’t the most difficult lifestyle change to make, and a good pair of shoes will go a long way to protect you.

If you need another reason to wear comfy athletic shoes every day, then consider how much easier it will be for you to make exercise a part of your daily life, which is another excellent way to reduce your levels of inflammation. Just be sure to stay off the football field. Leave that to the pros. And enjoy this Sunday’s game from a comfortable place like I will.

Perhaps having a different perspective on the game now will inspire you to invent a better way to protect these gladiators with inflammation-resistant suits, so they may be back to play in many more Super Bowls.

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Autistic Reader

    High BMI does not imply excess weight.

    Consider London Fletcher who stands 5'10" and weighs 245 lbs. Since he's a linebacker, he cannot afford excess body fat. Is he truly obese? Many basketball players also have high BMIs. I'd like to see a study of them before using BMI alone as an indicator of excess weight.

    February 3, 2012 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kal

      Couldn't agree more. I'm 5'6" and weigh 160 which puts my BMI at 25.6. Yet my body fat is around 10-12%. But apparently by using the really strong indicator of BMI I am overweight and bordering obesity.

      February 6, 2012 at 12:29 | Report abuse |
  2. chris

    Nfl players are some of the fittest athletes when they are playing but once they retire all the hard hits stay with them. Love the game but its brutal.skyflock

    February 4, 2012 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Awakened

    Football is a barbarian game. They should outlaw it in schools. It's an oxymoron that our society gives scholarships to kids that play football.

    February 4, 2012 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kal

      Get real. If you don't like it then don't let your kid play. Quit being annoying and trying to force your foolish opinions on other people's kids and families.

      February 6, 2012 at 12:25 | Report abuse |
  4. Bob

    BMI, are you kidding me. In the real world, means nothing. The doctor, let me rephrase, the health/wellness professional of today and the futre worth their salt will NOT care or put a client/patient on the scale. They will do a bodyfat composition. It is a fact, it is excess bodyfat and triglycerides that impact overall heath, not bodyweight! I am 5'4", weigh 205 and my BF% is approximately 17-18% (I normally maintain 12-15%). But it's winter. 🙂

    February 4, 2012 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kal

      By using BMI you shouldnt even be living at that weight much less being healthy!! lol

      February 6, 2012 at 12:30 | Report abuse |
  5. sam

    Oh yea sure sitting there sucking down 40 beers eating pizza and a few shots is good for them..YEA OK

    February 5, 2012 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. erich2112x

    What about rugby players in Europe and around the world? Their collisions on the field are just as bad but they wear no helmets or pads. Why aren't they doing a study on them?

    February 5, 2012 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Ernesto

    play soccer much more invigorating and more effort, hence healthier.

    February 6, 2012 at 16:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Good Health One

    This Site is very essential for me. Because I have got many information from here.Thank You ..........

    August 30, 2013 at 07:19 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.