Cardiac risks rise for linemen during football season

Data show worsening heart function for sport’s scrimmage line over a short time span


HEALTH ON THE LINE  In a new study, the cardiac health of college lineman showed signs of decline over a single football season.

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Blocking and tackling may not be the riskiest thing that linemen face on the football field. Blood pressure and cardiac function of college football linemen worsened over the course of a season, according to data presented November 10 at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions. The study adds to evidence that these players suffer more risk of heart disease than any other members of the team.

Since a controversial study in the 1990s reported that linemen have triple the risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared with other players, researchers have paid particular attention to the health consequences of playing football. Linemen are usually the largest members of a team, and they’re getting bigger, now averaging more than 300 pounds — a heart disease risk factor in itself. A 2013 study from researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that even after taking body size into account, linemen were more likely to have an unhealthy enlargement of cardiac muscle.

Most studies have been snapshots in time without follow up. For the new research, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston analyzed the cardiac health of 87 college freshman athletes at the beginning of the football season and again after the last game. While no player had high blood pressure at the beginning of the season, nine of 30 linemen did by the end of the season. In comparison, four players in other positions ended the season with high blood pressure.

Cardiac function also suffered in linemen. They were more likely to experience a thickening in the wall of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, and a decrease in its function.

The long-term effects of the cardiac changes among linemen are still under investigation, said study researcher Jeffrey Lin, now at Columbia University Medical Center. 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated November 23, 2015, to clarify the findings from the 1990s study.

About Laura Beil

Laura Beil is a contributing correspondent. Based outside Dallas, Beil specializes in reporting on medicine, health policy and science.

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