The heart health of football players might depend on the position they play, with linemen facing a greater risk for certain heart problems compared with their other teammates, a new Harvard study suggests.
College football linemen tended to have higher blood pressure than other players, along with an increase in the thickness of their heart muscle wall, said lead researcher Dr. Jeffrey Lin, a former cardiology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“Over the course of just one season, there was an increase in the incidence of high blood pressure among football players, and the linemen tended to be affected the most,” Lin said. “They developed thicker walls of their heart muscle, and they had decreases in the function of their heart as well.”
These differences likely are due to the demands of a lineman position, said Lin, who is now a cardiac imaging fellow at Columbia University in New York City.
“I think there’s something intrinsic to the way linemen train and play that contributes to the development of high blood pressure,” Lin said.
Lin was to present the findings Tuesday at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. Research presented at medical meetings is typically viewed as preliminary because it has not undergone the scrutiny of a peer-reviewed publication.
Since 2006, researchers with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University have been studying the way that sports affect the hearts of freshmen athletes.
“It’s a very unique program where they do very meticulous measures of every player, and how well they perform,” said Dr. Rachel Lampert, an associate professor of cardiology at Yale University and a member of the American College of Cardiology’s Sports and Exercise Council.
For this study, researchers in the program examined 87 freshmen football players to see how a single season would affect their hearts.
No players in the study had high blood pressure at the beginning of the season. However, by season’s end, nine of the 30 linemen had developed high blood pressure compared to only four of the 57 non-linemen, the researchers said.
Experts have long known that athletes undergo changes in their heart due to regular heavy exercise, but until now it’s been thought these adaptations did not affect overall health, Lampert and Lin said.
For example, the other college football players developed thicker heart walls too, but this didn’t seem to affect their blood pressure, Lin said.
“What this study tells us is that some of the changes may be maladaptive,” or bad for the athlete, Lampert said.
Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, agreed with Lin that for linemen, “this is just a problem with their occupation.”
Linemen are encouraged to bulk up so they can use their weight to block opposing linemen, and throughout a typical game they rarely are required to sprint long distances, Fletcher and Lin said.
“They’re continually pushing against the other team, but there’s very little aerobic activity involved,” Lin said.
Football linemen might need more attention from team doctors, given these findings, Lin said.
“Perhaps these are the folks we should be following more carefully through a football season and through their careers, and think of treating them with medication once they reach a certain threshold of blood pressure,” he said.
Lineman might want to take on more heart-healthy habits in the off-season, such as eating right and pursuing aerobic exercise, Fletcher added.
“I don’t know how much they encourage that during the season or off-season, but I think it could help,” he said. “They don’t get a lot of aerobics during the season. That’s just the way it is.”
These results also show that all athletes can’t be lumped together when it comes to health concerns, Lampert said.
“The fact that there are differences even within a sport tells us we need to think about athletes as individuals,” Lampert said. “Understanding the causes of those differences will help us understand why the process is happening in one group rather than another.”
For more on high blood pressure, visit the American Heart Association.