New Research Shows Ex-NFL Players More Likely To Have Enlarged Aortas

Former players in the NFL were more likely to have enlarged aortas, new research found, but more study is needed to say whether that puts them at greater risk for life-threatening aneurysms.

The former National Football League players were twice as likely to have enlarged aortas as were those in a control group—even after adjusting for the players’ typically larger size—said researchers with the Dallas Heart Study at UT Southwestern Medical Center, which provided the control group.

Nearly 30 percent of the former NFL players had enlarged aortas, compared with fewer than 9 percent in the comparison group from the Dallas Heart Study. The DHS is a one-of-a-kind, population-based study to identify new genetic, protein, and imaging biomarkers that can detect cardiovascular disease at its earliest stages.

Patients with enlarged aortas—those that are more than about 1.5 inches in diameter—are at increased risk to develop a tear that can require emergency surgery or even lead to death, said cardiologist Dr. Parag Joshi, an assistant professor of internal medicine and one of the study’s authors.

However, Joshi added, whether having an enlarged aorta “translates to the same risk for these former elite athletes as a dilated, or enlarged, aorta does for the general population is unclear. Is this a normal adaptation from having trained at the elite level throughout their youth, or is this a bad adaptation that puts them more at risk for problems?”

Researchers from UT Southwestern, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and MedStar Sports Medicine collaborated in the study, which was led by the Cleveland Clinic. Their findings appear in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.

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