The NFL has touted claims that its players live longer. That's misleading, a new study suggests.

While the NFL has previously touted studies suggesting that NFL players live longer than the general population, a new study published in JAMA suggests that any mortality advantage disappears when NFL players are compared to similarly trained athletes.

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Study details

For the study, researchers compared two groups of professional football players: those who played as replacements in 1987 during a three-week strike, and "career players" who debuted in the NFL between 1982 and 1992 and who had a median NFL tenure of five seasons. Overall, the researchers compared 879 replacement players with 2,933 career players.

The researchers found that the career players' risk of death was 38% higher than the replacement players over a 30-year follow-up period. However, that finding was not statistically significant because at the time the study period closed, the players were on average only 52 years old—and few, overall, had passed away.

When the researchers examined causes of death, they noted that 5% of career players who passed away died from neurological disorders—while none of the replacement players who passed away did so.

Discussion

The researchers noted that while the study's finding that overall mortality rates had increased was not statistically significant, the conclusions did "rule out the possibility that NFL players have substantively lower death rates than replacement players." By contrast, studies cited by NFL had found that NFL players tended to live longer than the general population.

The new study makes a meaningful contribution, Atheendar Venkataramani, Maheer Gandhavadi, and Anupam Jena—the authors of the study—write in STAT News, because previous research comparing NFL players to the general population were "really comparing apples and couch potatoes—the two groups are nothing alike." NFL players tend to be more fit, make more money, and have access to the highest quality health care while playing, the researchers explained. 

In contrast, the replacement players from the 1987 season broadly resembled career NFL players, including experience playing football and likely similar training—even if they played far fewer games. "In other words, replacement players are much more like NFL players than the rest of us, but without the prolonged exposure to the hazards of professional football," the authors wrote. "This makes them an ideal comparison group for NFL players."

The researchers recommended further research assessing not just life expectancy of career players and replacements, but also examining measures of physical and mental health of the two groups. Such research, according to the study authors, "will help increase statistical precision and provide a more detailed understanding of how the health of professional football players evolves with age."

Separately, Steven DeKosky—a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of Florida College of Medicine, who wrote an accompanying editorial to the study—said while the study failed to confirm a higher mortality risk among NFL players, the rate of neurological diseases among full-time players was "ridiculously high." He added, "There is something about multiple (head) trauma that clearly induces change in the nervous system."

Meanwhile, NFL in a prepared statement referenced the earlier studies that suggest NFL players live longer than men in the general population. The organization added, "As with all new research on this topic, we will look at it closely to see what we can learn to better enhance the well-being of our current and former players" (Weintraub, USA Today, 2/1; Venkataramani et. al., STAT News, 2/2; Lou, MedPage Today, 2/1).

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