In a new study on the health of football players, scientists aren’t looking at brain injuries like many concerned with contact sports. Instead they are focusing on heart health, especially in linemen, where increased blood pressure and other maladies of the heart run rampant.
Thanks to data from the Harvard Athlete Initiative, a research program currently devoted to all things athlete health and exercise physiology, scientists from the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston enrolled 87 eligible football players between 2008 and 2014, 30 linemen and 57 non-linemen.
Over one complete football season, approximately 90 days, researchers measured blood pressure and changes in the heart’s shape, size, structure, and function. A term coined “Athlete’s Heart” has been used in the past by scientists to describe the changes made in an athlete’s heart, especially an athlete who participates in high-levels of physical activity. Scientists began to recognize cardiac enlargement in athletes as early as the late 1800s, later confirmed via radiography and evidence from autopsy reports.
At the beginning of the season, 57 percent of linemen and 51 percent of non-linemen met the criteria for pre-hypertension, but when the season came to end, a whopping 90 percent of linemen were hypertensive, while the level of non-linemen stayed relatively the same. After just one football season, elevated blood pressure levels were accompanied by thickening of the heart walls and a “mild but significant decline in contractile function,” measured with strain echocardiography.
“Our findings suggest that heart remodeling in this population may have some maladaptive, potentially pathologic qualities," said senior author Aaron L. Baggish, M.D. The results from Baggish’s study indeed differ significantly from the patterns described by the term “Athletic Heart.” In fact they more resemble older populations with hypertension and hypertensive heart disease.
Something to consider is the 90-day length of the study, which was relatively short considering that many if not all college athletes have been playing sports for many years before they begin their college athletic career.
"While this isn't the first time we've seen that different types of sports participation results in varying forms of cardiac remodeling, this is the first time we've identified an athletic population that appears to remodel with maladaptive attributes," Baggish said. "This type of change to the heart is concerning in this population of young, otherwise healthy athletes and raises questions about long term health implications."
Baggish’s study was recently published in JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging
Source: American College of Cardiology