Despite more than 1,500 lawsuits having been filed against the NFL claiming concussion-related brain trauma, there actually is some good health news regarding former players.
According to results of a medical study commissioned at the request of the NFL Players Association, the long-standing belief that the average player lives only into his mid-50s is a myth.
In fact, players with at least five years of NFL service between 1959 and 1988 are actually living longer than the general populace.
The results of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study were sent via email Tuesday by the NFL as part of its monthly missives to retired players. The report was initially finished in 1994, but findings were recently amended and updated after further research at NIOSH’s request.
NIOSH found that almost 90 percent of the 3,439 players in the study were still alive at the time of the study’s completion. In comparison, the rate for the general populace was about 82 percent.
Deaths from cancer and heart disease were lower, as well. There were 85 players dying from cancer compared to a projection of 146 deaths in the general populace.
NIOSH had expected 186 deaths from heart disease but instead found 126 players died for that reason. The agency, though, did find players who had gained significant weight after football and carried a Body Mass Index of 30 or more had double the risk of dying than their slimmer peers. BMI measures body fat, with a score of 30 or higher being considered obese.
The only position group that had a higher average death rate from heart disease than the general public was defensive linemen, with 41 deaths compared to a populace projection of 29. Enlarged hearts (i.e. cardiomyopathy) were responsible for eight deaths; the expectation was two deaths.
African-American players had a 69 percent greater chance of heart-related death than Caucasian players.
“We are not sure what caused this difference,” the report said. “Player size and position are not the reason. In general, African-Americans have been found to have a higher risk of heart disease compared to Caucasians.”
NIOSH began the study in 1990. The 3,439 players surveyed were identified through the NFL’s pension fund. All of the information came from the fund’s database, commercial publications and death certificates.
The NFLPA declined comment about the study to FOXSports.com. Curiously, the findings were sent to retired players by the league rather than the NFLPA.
“There had been several news articles that stated NFL players only lived into their 50s on average,” the NIOSH report said. “There was no scientific proof we could find that supported this statement. We agreed that it would be important to find out if NFL players face health risks that may relate to their job.”
The league, though, is still facing heavy public and legal scrutiny stemming from brain damage suffered — or claimed to be — by former players who say the league didn’t properly diagnose or advise them on concussions and the potential long-term health effects. The issue drew even more attention last week when future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide at age 43.
Although there is no definitive link between Seau's death and concussions, two medical research groups have lobbied Seau’s family for the right to diagnose his brain. Post-autopsy diagnosis has connected some players who have committed suicide with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease associated with those who have suffered multiple concussions.
Seau’s former wife, Gina, told ESPN that he had repeatedly suffered concussions during a 20-year NFL career.
“I don't know what football player hasn't,” Gina Seau said. “It’s not ballet. It’s part of the game."
The league has funded concussion research projects and become more responsive to treatment of current players in recent seasons under NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The NFLPA also has pushed health-related initiatives for former players.
But even with improved protective steps being taken both medically and with rules changes, a backlash has started against the sport itself. Some of the latest negative comments about football came from a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Kurt Warner, who had a concussion history, recently said he preferred his sons didn’t play.
NIOSH, a government research agency that's part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is currently studying the neurodegenerative causes of death among the players in its report. The focus is on Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Outside researchers believe there is a link between concussions and those neurodegenerative diseases. Former NFL safety Steve Gleason, who was one of the most popular New Orleans Saints players during the past decade, suffers from ALS.