Former NFL Players Found to Have Abnormally Large Aortas

Study adds further support to the term 'athlete's heart'

NFL Players

Studies have shown that some elite-level athletes have larger hearts and thicker heart muscles because of the intensive, regular exercise that they routinely perform over a long period of time. There’s even a name for it — athlete’s heart.

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Now, a new study published in the journal Circulation shows that retired National Football League players have larger aortas than the average person, too. The aorta is the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

“The surprising result of all of this was the actual overall average size of the aorta in the NFL group, which was really much bigger than we anticipated going into the study,” says Dermot Phelan, MD, PhD, of Cleveland Clinic, who authored the study.

Comparing heart scans

Cleveland Clinic researchers studied 206 retired NFL players with an average age of 56.

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Heart scans of the former players were compared to heart scans of a group of 759 male non-athlete who were about the same age. The heart scans measured dimensions of the aorta.

Results show the NFL player group had significantly larger aortic diameters, even after adjusting for factors such as  age, race, body surface area, systolic blood pressure, history of hypertension, smoking status, diabetes and high cholesterol. The NFL players in the study had a two-fold risk of having an enlarged aorta, when compared to the non-athletes.

Interestingly, the NFL group also had lower levels of hypertension, cholesterol and smoking, which are all risk factors for an enlarged aorta.

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Players with the largest aorta

Researchers found that linemen in the study had slightly larger aortas versus players who play other positions. This may be due to intense weight lifting that causes short bursts of high blood pressure and stresses the aorta, Dr. Phelan says.

Typically, an enlarged aorta in an average person is a risk factor for developing a tear in the vessel wall, which can be life threatening — but more research is needed to know if the same is true for elite athletes.

“Until we know more about what this means, we should be cautious and continue to monitor these folks more closely than we would normally,” Dr. Phelan says.

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