The Heart Of The Issue

Medical Concerns

Nfl Study Of Cardiac Health, Obesity Presents Players With Good And Bad News

July 12, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

In the face of scientific research that suggests NFL linemen might be too big for their own welfare, Ravens defensive tackle Justin Bannan stands resolute and unflinching.

He has read studies on heart health in the league, is aware of the alarming mortality rates for retired players and understands the risk of obesity at his position.

But Bannan believes today's players have learned enough from the past to have a good chance of avoiding cardiac problems after retirement.

"You're talking about a different generation," Bannan said. "You can't make conclusions until we get to that age. My generation, when it gets there, will be healthier men."

When training camp opens in little more than two weeks, Bannan and the Ravens will be on the forefront of research into cardiovascular health and obesity. Practicing in the often-severe heat of training camp has its own risks for the league's big men, as well.

The NFL has been trying to come to terms with cardiac health in its biggest players since a 1994 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said offensive and defensive linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.

Since that time, even as a number of linemen died prematurely from heart ailments, the NFL has launched its own studies to determine the veracity of independent research. Dr. Andrew Tucker, the Ravens' team physician, has headed the league's subcommittee on cardiovascular health since 2005, when he was charged by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue with unlocking the secrets of heart health and the risks of obesity.

Along with co-chair Dr. Robert Vogel, a cardiologist from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Tucker's committee recently published findings that suggest the cardiovascular risks of active players are approximately the same as their counterparts in the general population, with the notable exception of high blood pressure.

"The medical community has raised the legitimate question: Are our guys not as healthy as the regular American of the same age?" Tucker said. "And has the size of our guys gotten to the point where there is a detrimental effect on heart health? And are we predisposing them, are we setting them up for problems down the road? That was really the genesis of our whole committee."

Concern about cardiac health has grown proportionately with the dramatic increase in physical size of NFL players over the past two decades. Most disconcerting have been the premature deaths of several linemen, active and retired, this decade.

The death of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Korey Stringer, 27, from heatstroke during the Minnesota Vikings' 2001 training camp sounded an alarm. In 2004, retired Hall of Fame defensive tackle Reggie White, 43, died of a heart attack. Eight months later, reserve offensive guard Thomas Herrion collapsed in the San Francisco 49ers' locker room after an exhibition game and died from a significant blockage in his enlarged heart. Herrion was 23.

Offensive guard Orlando Bobo, a member of the Ravens' Super Bowl team in 2000, died in 2007 at age 33 of heart and liver failure while waiting to have his spleen removed.

There was more chilling news from research in 2005. The Scripps Howard News Service conducted a study of 3,850 pro football players who died in the past century. The conclusion: The heaviest players - offensive and defensive linemen - are more than twice as likely to die before turning 50 as their teammates. That study was not a scientific effort, but its impact nevertheless sent ripples of concern through the league.

Tucker's study of active players from the 2007 preseason followed scientific protocols and looked at 504 players from 12 teams. Fifty Ravens, including Bannan, participated in the research.

Players filled out questionnaires on personal and family histories, had blood tests, body measurements and blood pressure readings. Special tests - an echocardiogram and a sleep apnea test - were administered to certain teams.

Bannan, whose 315 pounds are deceptive on a sturdy 6-foot-3 frame, said he checked out well.

"For me, it's about taking the information and being proactive with your body," he said.

"I think they're trying to get a gauge on linemen now and later on in life. You have to make lifestyle changes after you're done playing and cut some weight. What we're talking about is being educated and having better habits."

The results said NFL players tended to be less pre-diabetic than the average American, despite outweighing him on the average by 70 pounds.

Blood pressure results told a different story, however. NFL players were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure than the average American their age (14 percent to 5.5 percent). That risk factor sent the NFL's cardiovascular subcommittee back to work.

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