As football fans gird for the NFL to kick off its 100th season Sept. 5, there’s some sobering news about the players who have left the field.
Cleveland Clinic researchers found that a group of retired NFL players were five times more likely to have atrial fibrillation, the most common type of irregular heart rhythm, which is linked to higher risk of stroke, heart failure and even death.
Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the study compared 460 retired NFL players with a control group of 925 guys from the Dallas Heart Study in a similar age range.
Eighty percent of the athletes diagnosed with atrial fibrillation during the study were unaware they had it because they didn’t show the typical symptoms.
“We found with retired NFL players, their heart rate was a little bit slower, so they actually didn’t get tachycardia or fast heart rates that are typically seen with atrial fibrillation,” said Dr. Dermot Phelan, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s sports cardiology center.
While the former NFL athletes had a lower resting heart rate—62 beats per minute versus 66 for the control group—they had an eightfold higher prevalence of paced cardiac rhythms and were twice as likely to have first-degree atrioventricular block.
Other recent data shows that former NFL players could have reduced cardiovascular mortality, Phelan notes. “The effects of long-term participation in strength sports on cardiovascular health appear to be complex and nuanced,” he said. “Much research work remains.”