FRIDAY, Oct. 9, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- A recent report linking professional football to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease set off alarms in locker rooms across the nation, but the news for aging athletes isn't all bad. Retired pro football players have fewer heart disease risk factors than other men in the same age group, a U.S. study has found.
Researchers compared 150 former National Football League players with 150 non-athletic men. The average age of the study participants was 55, and the median body mass index (BMI) for men in both groups was 31, which is considered to be obese.
The former professional football players had a significantly lower prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, sedentary lifestyle and metabolic syndrome, the study found.
"Despite their large body size, retired NFL players do not have a greater prevalence of heart disease risk factors when compared to the general population," lead author Dr. Alice Chang, an assistant professor of internal medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said in a UT news release. "In fact, other factors such as age and high cholesterol levels were better predictors for heart disease than the body size of the former athletes in our study."
Being physically fit earlier in life may help offset the health risks associated with a large body size later in life, suggested senior author Dr. Benjamin Levine, a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine -- a joint program of UT Southwestern and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
The study authors noted that although the retired players had fewer heart disease risk factors than other men, the athletes had as much hardening of the arteries as the non-athletes. And while they were less likely to have diabetes, the former NFLers had higher rates of pre-diabetes -- high fasting blood-sugar numbers that increase their risk of developing diabetes.
"The good news is that as long as you remain active and fit, even with a larger body, you can lower your risk for heart disease," Chang said in the news release. "The bad news is that being a professional athlete doesn't eliminate your risk for developing heart disease later in life. Even professional athletes may be at risk for developing heart disease as they age."
The study appeared in the September issue of the American Journal of Cardiology.
Another study, which was commissioned by the NFL and conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found that aging pro football players were more likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia than the general population.
Retired players between the ages of 30 and 49 are 19 times more likely to struggle with memory problems than similarly aged men who never played professional football, according to that study.
"Typically, head injury is found to roughly double the risk for developing dementia," said Greg Cole, a professor of medicine and neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine, who was familiar with the research.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about physical activity and your heart.