MONDAY, Jan. 29, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- After their playing days are done, many National Football League linemen suffer from a health syndrome that puts them at significant risk for cardiovascular disease.
That condition, called metabolic syndrome, includes such symptoms as an enlarged heart, sleep apnea, abdominal obesity and high blood pressure, according to a study by Dr. Arthur Roberts, a former NFL quarterback, a retired heart surgeon, and president of the Living Heart Foundation.
Linemen, who are the largest players and typically weigh in at 300 to 350 pounds, are twice as likely to develop these conditions as other retired football players. "When you break it down, the main risk factor is their large body size," Roberts said.
What's more, NFL players play a contact sport that leaves them with many chronic bone and joint injuries, which makes exercising difficult after they retire, Roberts said. "In addition, the requirement for large body size, which is getting bigger and bigger, is also known to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," he said.
Roberts was to have presented his findings Saturday at the annual International Symposium on Endovascular Therapy in Hollywood, Fla. HealthDay initially reported most of the findings in June 2006, following a presentation at the American Society of Echocardiography annual scientific sessions.
Of 900 retired players screened during the last three years, Roberts has compiled and analyzed health information on 550 of them. Robert's group plans to screen 60 more retired players on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 -- most while attending Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4 in Miami.
So far, the researchers have found that 52.2 percent of the lineman have metabolic syndrome, in which a person has three or more of the following conditions: abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides (blood fats) and low HDL (good) cholesterol. This compares with 22.2 percent of other retired players and 21.8 percent of the general U.S. population.
Linemen also have a higher rate of diabetes, thicker heart walls and a greater rate of obesity and high blood pressure. They're also 54 percent more likely to have enlarged hearts than other NFL players. Among lineman, 36.9 percent had enlarged hearts, compared with 24.5 percent of other retired players.
Many athletes have enlarged hearts from intense conditioning, but usually their hearts return to normal size after they retire, Roberts said. But this new research suggests otherwise for ex-lineman. An enlarged heart is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Seventy-five percent of retired linemen also have sleep apnea, compared with 50 percent of other retired players, and 7 percent to 10 percent of the general population, Roberts said. Sleep apnea increases the risk for heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and daytime drowsiness.
Dr. Lori Croft, who worked on collecting and analyzing the data with Roberts, isn't sure why linemen, in particular, develop these problems.
"We don't know if it's because they are big guys who stay big that gives them all the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, or is it because they train differently," said Croft, associate director of the echocardiography lab at Mount Sinai Heart and an assistant professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
To avoid the heart risks brought on by excess weight, Roberts thinks retired linemen need to drastically modify the lifestyle of their playing days.
"Once these players finish their playing days, or once high school and college athletes who are trying to reach the high level of excellence in the NFL finish getting as far as they can reach, they need to be concerned about weight management," he said.
These players need to lose weight, reduce their food consumption and continue to exercise, Roberts said. "This is not easy for many of the players who sustain back, neck, knee and shoulder injuries while playing," he said.
One expert thinks that even while these pro athletes are in their prime, weighing more than 300 pounds isn't healthy.
"It is well known that obesity increases the risk of many diseases, including metabolic syndrome, an enlarged heart, and obstructive sleep apnea," said Dr. Byron K. Lee, an assistant professor of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco.
"Unfortunately, in some sports, being heavy is helpful and therefore encouraged," Lee said. "NFL linemen now are frequently over 300 pounds. Most doctors would agree that being this heavy, even for a professional athlete, is not healthy."
But the problem isn't confined to professional football. As the demand for bigger, heavier players continues to grow, 50 percent of high school football linemen are now overweight, and one in 10 are severely obese, according to a study in the Jan. 25 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Roberts doesn't think that gaining weight to play high school football will cause permanent harm. "We don't know if the large body size that results in these kids causes cardiovascular risk that will continue into adulthood," he said.
"As doctors, we have to remind the families and the players that once they achieve whatever level of excellence they can in football, they need to lose weight, change their diet and continue regular exercise," he added.
The American Heart Association can tell you more about the risks of being overweight.