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NFL players age nearly decade faster than general population, study suggests

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Certain age-related illnesses may come at a younger age for skilled American football players and cause the healthspans of athletes to be reduced by as much as a decade, in keeping with a recent study.

The research, published last week within the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found some players aged nearly a decade faster than the overall population and suffered from conditions typically related to advanced age similar to arthritis and hypertension as early as their twenties.

Scientists, including those from Harvard Medical School within the US, are calling for further studies to grasp the biological mechanisms behind this observed premature aging phenomenon.

“The outcomes should function an alarm bell telling clinicians who look after these individuals to pay close attention even to their relatively younger former athlete patients,” study senior writer Rachel Grashow said.

“Such heightened vigilance can result in earlier diagnoses and timelier intervention to forestall or dramatically slow the pace of age-related illness,” Dr Grashow said.

Researchers call for identifying young and middle-aged NFL players who could have these disease conditions.

Within the study, data from a survey of nearly 3,000 former National Football League (NFL) players between the ages of 25 and 59 – the most important study cohort of former skilled football players so far – was assessed.

Scientists then determined whether a healthcare provider had ever told these athletes that that they had conditions like dementia/Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, hypertension or diabetes.

In addition they used survey data to measure the participants’ health spans or how long these athletes lived without developing any of those diseases, after which compared the survey results with similar questions asked of most people, accounting for aspects like body mass index and race.

While all 4 conditions were found to extend with age in each the previous football players and in most people, the prevalence of those conditions differed significantly between the 2 groups.

The previous football players were more more likely to report in each decade that they’d been diagnosed with dementia/Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis, the study noted.

It found that younger players aged 25-29 reported significantly higher numbers of hypertension and diabetes diagnoses in comparison with the overall population.

The healthspan for every former NFL player age group within the study most closely resembled American men a decade older.

“Skilled football players might live so long as men in the overall population, but those years may very well be full of disability and infirmity,” Dr Grashow said.

Researchers also found that linemen playing the game, who experience more contact during games than non-linemen, had notably shorter health spans.

This group of players tended to develop age-related illnesses before their other peers.

“These data suggest the emergence of a maladaptive early ageing phenotype amongst former skilled ASF players characterised by premature burden of chronic disease and reduced healthspan,” researchers wrote within the study.

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