By Serena Gordon
MONDAY, Oct. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Crushing the notion that you can be both fat and fit, new research has found that current professional football linemen already have some risk factors for heart disease.
In a study comparing professional football players to minor and major league baseball players, researchers found that football linemen were more likely to have higher fasting blood sugar levels, larger waist circumferences and a greater waist-to-height ratio.
Although the idea that a football player could be at risk for heart disease might seem paradoxical because football players have to be in top physical condition, the lineman position also requires players to bulk up, with many tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds. All that extra weight may put players at risk later in life.
"We've identified a subset of players that are exercising like crazy and they're extremely fit, but the exercise isn't completely protective," said one of the study's authors, Dr. John Helzberg, co-director of the division of gastroenterology at Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
Helzberg was quick to point out that the study was not designed to look at the rates of heart disease or deaths from heart disease later in life but to identify only current risk factors. The hope is that by identifying the risk factors, steps could be taken to tackle the risk factors now, and interventions could be designed to help players when they retire.
Results of the study were scheduled to be presented Oct. 26 at the American College of Gastroenterology's annual scientific meeting in San Diego.
Previous research has suggested that football players face myriad risks later in life, such as higher rates of chronic pain, depression and even dementia. Helzberg said the idea for the current study came from a news report that suggested that football players were twice as likely to die before the age of 50 as baseball players.
To get an idea of how football players' health really compared with that of baseball players, Helzberg and his colleagues assessed a range of risk factors in 69 professional football players and 155 baseball players -- both minor and major league.
Many football players, such as quarterbacks and receivers, have heart disease risk profiles similar to those of baseball players. However, the 19 men playing lineman positions -- including guards, tackles, centers and defensive ends -- had significantly higher fasting blood sugar levels, waist circumferences and waist-to-height ratios, which are all considered risk factors for cardiovascular disease. And, when three such risk factors are combined, it's considered metabolic syndrome, which often indicates an increased risk for heart disease.
Of the linemen, 26 percent had fasting glucose levels above 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) compared with 7 percent of the baseball players. That level is considered prediabetic, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Nearly 100 percent of the linemen had a waist circumference greater than 100 centimeters (39.4 inches), which is considered a risk factor for heart disease, whereas only 8 percent of the baseball players had waists that size. Having a waist-to-height ratio greater than 0.5 also increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, and 95 percent of the linemen had a ratio greater than that, compared with 24 percent of the baseball players, according to Helzberg.
"These guys are very big, and yes, they have more muscle, but a lot of the weight is fat, and anyone at a higher weight is at risk of metabolic syndrome," said Dr. Jonathan Whiteson, co-director of the Joan and Joel Smilow Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention Center at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
"What happens is that you don't have to have rip-roaring abnormalities, but when you put these factors together, you create metabolic syndrome," Whiteson said. "This can put them at risk for premature heart disease, stroke, vascular disease in the legs and sudden death," he explained.
"The message is clear," he said. "Being fat is not fit. It's a medical condition."
But there are other worries as well, he added. "What's always a concern of mine is that these people are role models for children, and you see young boys who want to play football bulking up," Whiteson said. "We should be promoting a better health profile than linebackers."