February's Super Bowl Sunday provides an occasion to marvel at the sheer physical prowess of dedicated athletes who have conditioned their bodies to near super-hero form.But the high-profile cardiac-related deaths of pros like Thomas Herrion and Gaines Adams have raised the question of whether the risks of the game extend beyond the obvious impact injuries.Initial evidence suggests that while most NFL players enjoy several health advantages compared to their male spectators, they run a higher risk of heart attacks due to increased blood pressure.
An NFL-funded study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared health profiles of over 500 active and veteran football players from 12 NFL teams with data from the general U.S.population.Smartly, the players were over 300 times less likely to smoke (pros know any kind of smoke harms athletic performance).Another big difference: the players' average BMI (31.4) puts them in the obese category (vs.mildly overweight, at 25.9, for the average Joes).But this merely reflects the limitations of the Body Mass Index, which doesn't distinguish between fat and muscle (e.g., the U.S.rise in BMI is not due to an epidemic of weight-lifting, but fork-lifting).
The biggest surprise: up to 90% of the NFL players had high blood pressure -- compared to 30% of the general male population.In other words, the pros were two-and-a-half times more likely to have above-normal blood pressure! What could account for this difference? According to the authors, aggressive drug testing eliminates steroids as a factor, though prolonged use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e., aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) could play a role.Diet is certainly a major factor: too much salt and meat -- and not enough fruit and vegetables can spike blood pressure.