NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A new Tulane School of Medicine study found heart abnormalities in retired NFL players, particularly those who are large in size.
Researchers said the study is the first to examine how an athlete’s body type and training style - strength versus endurance - may influence changes in the shape of the heart years later.
"Athletes when they work out and elite athletes develop what’s called ‘athletes heart,’ and one of the things that we see with that is the size of that left ventricle increases. In most people, after they stop exercising the heart remodels back to normal, so that the left ventricle is more normal in size,” said Dr. Gregory Stewart with Tulane’s Sport Medicine Program and senior author of the study.
The study, which was supported by the NFL Player Care Foundation, had a sample of more than 1,100 former players.
Researchers found that ex-players, particularly those with larger body sizes, had heart abnormalities associated with high blood pressure.
Additionally, former players with severe left ventricle hypertrophy (LVH) had significantly higher blood pressure than those without LVH, said researchers.
"Most of what we see goes along with individuals who are doing strength training and weight-lifting, so we’re more apt to see this in our big players, our offensive and defensive linemen,” said Dr. Stewart.
He said they did not see the normal heart remodeling in the former players even though they were no longer engaged in rigorous workouts.
"What we’re finding in these former NFL players is that it doesn’t seem to change that much, that the increase in the heart size stays,” said Stewart.
Some screenings of former players happened during this year’s Super Bowl.
"I was just talking to a wife of a former player who passed away at the age of 38, he was an offensive lineman, of significant heart disease that he was not aware of,” said Stewart.
He said many ex-players are not diligent about health care.
"These are guys who are used to having the doctors come to them, or them being brought to the doctors. We see guys here who've been 30 or 40 years since they've seen a physician and sometimes it was when they last were in the league,” added Stewart.
The study suggests more vigilant monitoring of players’ cardiovascular health.
"And I think we actually have to get to a point where we're looking at this at the earlier level, at the junior high and high school level and college level and having a group that we follow,” said Stewart.
He said they would like access to ex-players’ hearts once they die.
"We’re going to start talking to these guys about letting us do the autopsy on their hearts after they pass, in order to have this, so that we can learn what exactly is going on,” Stewart said.