The Health Benefits of Playing NFL Football


As current and former players come forth in the wake of Junior Seau’s death to address whether they would/will let their children play football, it’s interesting to take a look at the health issues that arise in retired NFL players.

On January 28, 1994, the health section in the New York Times put out an article titled Super BOwl XXVIII; NFL Players Live Longer. The article details the initial study of the health of former players and issues related to life expectancy.

"A Federal agency announced today that its study showed the death rate for former professional football players was 46 percent less than the rate for American men of similar age and race in the general population.The study also showed, however, that offensive and defensive linemen, who are heavier than other players, had a 52 percent greater risk than nonplayers of dying from heart disease. And it showed that heart disease killed linemen at a rate 3.7 times higher than the rate for other players….In the past, the Players Association had said that former professional players had a life expectancy of 53 years, as opposed to 72 for the general male population. Not so, the study concluded. – Frank Litsky (New York Times)"

The NFLPA asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to conduct the study.

Now let’s take a look at the most recent study on retired players by NIOSH. They used the same population, just followed-up 16 years later. This comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

"Players had a much lower overall rate of death compared to men in the general U.S. population of similar age and racial mix. On average, NFL players are actually living longer than the average American male. Out of the 3,439 players in the study, 334 were deceased. Based on estimates from the general population, we anticipated roughly 625 deaths.Players also had a much lower rate of cancer-related deaths compared to the general U.S. population. A total of 85 players died from cancer when we anticipated 146 cancer-related deaths based on estimates from the general population.Players who had a playing-time BMI of 30 or more had twice the risk of death from heart disease compared to other players. Similar findings have been noted in other studies. Offensive and defensive linemen were more likely to have a BMI greater than 30. A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese in the general population whereas a healthy BMI is between 18.5-24.9. – Sherry Baron, MD., (CDC)"

You can read more results here.

While this news is promising, there’s a difference between life expectancy and quality of life. More research (i.e. life satisfaction scales) needs to be done in order to really assess a retired player’s life. Perhaps then, the NFL will work to better take care of their retired players.

Based on these studies, there are some health benefits to playing NFL football. The league is constantly working towards making the game safer by altering rules as well.

What the league can’t control for is how much bigger, faster, and stronger players get. It appears that the NFL needs to constantly tailor the sport in order to best protect its players.

There’s no real solution to the problem, just a real promise from the league to do the best they can with what’s presented in front on them.

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