Frederik Joelving, Reuters

Despite all their hard work on the field, retired National Football League players may be facing the same health problems that plague obese men who stick to watching the game. “We see these guys as supermen, they are the pinnacle of health,” said Dr. R. Todd Hurst of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. “But those same things that make them invincible on the field also put them at risk when they stop playing.”

From 2006 to 2007, Hurst and his colleagues screened 201 healthy, retired NFL players for several risk factors related to overweight, such as buildup of fats in the carotid arteries that supply the brain with blood. One-third of the retired players, on average about 50 years old, had previously unrecognized carotid plaques. That puts them in the same category as obese, non-athletic men who were referred to the Mayo Clinic for cardiovascular evaluation. In the general population, by contrast, only about one in ten men have carotid plaques.

“These elite athletes have the same amount of artery disease as couch potatoes,” said Hurst, whose results appear online in the American Journal of Cardiology. Researchers first became interested in the heart health of football players in the mid-1990s. A team from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had revealed that although the general risk of death was lower in players than in the general population, the risk of dying from heart disease tripled for the heftier linemen.

That extra bulk, of course, is not all muscle. “After they retire they start to develop all the risk factors that are associated with getting heavier,” states Dr. Marc Miller, of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Two years ago, he found that retired linemen had an 85 percent chance of developing metabolic syndrome, a constellation of risk factors tied to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

While the researchers still need more data, the findings so far are consistent and raise concerns, they say. “The question really is, should there be some intervention on behalf of the National Football League Association to ensure that retired football players have adequate health maintenance?” Miller said.

The exact cause of the problems is unclear. It could be fast foods, growth hormones or steroids, said Hurst, or a combination. As for those players looking to retire, he said, they should get a checkup at the doctor and think about changing their eating habits. “The important message is not to believe that because you're an athlete you're protected,” said Dr. Sherry Baron, who led the early study at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

SOURCE: American Journal of Cardiology