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Men’s Health: Football linemen at higher risk for heart disease

Former player turned cardiologist aims to help athletes understand the consequences of bulking up

During the day, Arthur “Archie” Roberts studied the playbook for the Miami Dolphins in case something happened to starting quarterback Bob Griese. At night, he hit the medical textbooks. Eventually, Roberts would prove better at cardiology than football: He played in one game in the National Football League, but rose to be chief of cardiology at Boston University. Now, retired from the academic world, Roberts has returned to football, trying to find out why the huge athletic linemen who protected him in the NFL are more likely to be his heart patients than other players.

“Large body size is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and football players — particularly linemen — are getting bigger and bigger,” says Roberts, founder of the Living Heart Foundation in Little Silver, N.J. When he was a backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins in 1967, only a handful of football players weighed as much as 300 pounds (136 kilograms). Today, the average lineman tops 300 pounds and many are more than 350 pounds (159 kilograms).

“When these players are in training, they develop eating habits that are designed to put on pounds and muscle,” Roberts says. “But when they retire or are injured and can no longer play, those habits and that weight don’t change.” The result is metabolic syndrome: a collection of heart disease risk factors including abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, elevated levels of fat particles (triglycerides) in the blood, and low levels of “good” cholesterol. “If you have three of those five conditions, you have the metabolic syndrome, which we see as a forerunner of heart disease.”

Roberts has screened more than 900 retired NFL players in a project of his foundation, regional hospitals and the National Football League Players Association. What he has found so far is worrisome for former linemen — those who played guard, tackle or centre on the offence or defence.

About 52 per cent of retired linemen have metabolic syndrome, compared with 22 per cent of retired football players who played at other positions, such as running backs, receivers or defensive backs. Linemen are at least 50 per cent more likely to have enlarged hearts than non-linemen (37 per cent versus 25 per cent). And about 75 per cent of linemen suffer from sleep apnea, a condition that puts a person at risk for mental confusion, stroke, heart attack, daytime sleepiness and high blood pressure. Half of all retired football players Roberts screened were found to have sleep apnea, compared with seven to 10 per cent of the general population.

Roberts says his mission is to help players understand there are health consequences to their occupation. “There is a concerted effort to have the players follow up with their doctors when necessary to help them build healthier lifestyles.”

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