NFL players die at higher rates than MLB players, but heart risks loom large for both sports

National Football League (NFL) players appear to be at an elevated risk of death compared with Major League Baseball (MLB) players, according to new research led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, analyzed death rates and causes of death in 3,419 NFL players and 2,708 MLB players over the course of more than 30 years. The findings showed that while NFL players died of neurodegenerative diseases at a higher rate than MLB players, both groups of athletes were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than brain diseases.

“There is so much press and buzz around the neurocognitive stuff, and that was one of the important things to come out of this,” said lead author Marc Weisskopf, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Physiology at Harvard Chan School, in a May 24, 2019 Stat article. “But for cardiovascular disease, the number was higher, and since it’s more common, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s a very important issue.”

Prior studies have compared mortality rates among NFL players with the general public and have shown that NFL players had lower overall rates of mortality and lower rates of cardiovascular deaths. For this study, however, researchers were able to compare two groups of elite athletes.

There were 517 deaths among NFL players and 431 deaths among MLB players between 1979 and 2013. The difference translates into a 26% higher mortality rate among football players compared with baseball players, according to an article from Harvard Medical School.

The study also showed that NFL players had a nearly threefold greater likelihood of dying of neurodegenerative conditions, compared with MLB players. They were also 2.5 times more likely to die from a cardiac cause.

“Even a single preventable or premature death is one too many, so it is critical for scientists and clinicians to pursue further research into teasing out the reasons behind this increased mortality,” Weisskopf added.

Read the Stat article: Former NFL players die at a faster rate than other professional athletes, study finds

Read the Harvard Medical School article: Pro-Athlete Mortality Gap