Unlike other men in a similar age range, retired NFL players had a significantly lower prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, sedentary lifestyles and metabolic syndrome, according to the study.
Drs. Alice Chang and Benjamin Levine have shown that retired NFL players have a significantly lower prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, sedentary lifestyles and metabolic syndrome.
"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. 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," said Chang.
Chang said although a majority of these players are not as fit and active after retirement, they still had fewer risk factors for heart disease than men of the same age and body size from the Dallas Heart Study-a groundbreaking investigation of cardiovascular disease that involves thousands of Dallas County residents.
Staying physically fit earlier in life might have offset the risks associated with a large body size, said the study's senior author, Dr. Benjamin Levine.
The study examined 150 former pro athletes and 150 normal counterparts from the Dallas Heart Study with an average age of 55.
The median BMI for both groups was higher than 31, which is considered to be in the obese range.
Retired NFL players were found to have developed similar amounts of coronary atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) as the group of non-athletes.
Although they were less likely to have diabetes, they had higher rates of pre-diabetes, high fasting blood-sugar numbers that increase their risk for developing diabetes in the future.
"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. 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," said Chang.
She advised that professional athletes should continue exercise regimens after their professional careers are over.
In addition, she suggested that for the public at large, the study reaffirms that exercise is an important way to decrease the risk for heart disease.
The findings of the study have been published in the American Journal of Cardiology.