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Otto Greule Jr. obtained ty Images
A new study of former National Football League (NFL) players shows that they have heart abnormalities associated with high blood pressure even decades after leaving the field. The problems were most common in those with larger bodies – think linemen, tight ends, backhoe, and the like. It is the first study to examine how training among elite athletes can affect their heart long after they leave the field.
When you work out on a professional level, the size and shape of your heart changes. This is called the athlete's heart. For example, the wall of the left ventricle of the heart (one of the two chambers of the heart) often increases in thickness – left ventricular hypertrophy or LVH. Doctors usually do not consider LVH as harmful to athletes, but for the rest of us, LVH is associated with untreated high blood pressure, which is associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
The researchers studied 1,172 former players and found that 12 percent of them had LVH – a level comparable to the overall population. It also appeared to be associated with an increased blood pressure rate; Patients with severe LVH had significantly higher blood pressure than those without LVH. And the connection goes in the other direction: The retired players with high blood pressure had a 1.5 times higher probability of LVH than players with normal blood pressure.
Interestingly, LVH was equally common among those who had just retired and those who had gone out of business for 20 or more years. This could mean that the condition does not disappear after retirement or that he returns quickly after the men leave, possibly due to a long-lasting untreated high blood pressure.
"Despite the fact that these guys were once incredibly active and in an incredibly good cardiovascular form, they could still have significant cardiovascular anomalies down the line," said Genevieve Smith, faculty lecturer at Tulane University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. "What we do not know is whether the changes we see later in life are related to the high blood pressure or" athlete's heart "that they had when they were professional players." LVH types – known as eccentric LVH and concentric LVH – can provide clues to the answer. Concentric LVH indicates a thicker, larger ventricular wall, but the chamber itself is a normal size. In eccentric LVH, the wall is thicker, but the ventricle itself is larger. Younger players probably have an eccentric LVH due to hard training, while older players have concentric LVH due to untreated high blood pressure.
So what's the lesson for those of us who are not former NFL players? Well, it's a reminder that even top athletes can have health issues that can be overlooked because everything seems to be okay. And no matter how physically fit, you need to take care of your heart.