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Former NFL players are 6 times more likely to have irregular heartbeats

Former NFL players are 6 times more likely to have irregular heartbeats the can lead to heart attacks and strokes

  • Researchers compared 460 former NFL players with 925 men who aren’t professional athletes
  • The players were almost six times more likely to have atrial fibrillation than the control group 
  • AFib is an irregular and rapid heart rate that can lead to blood clots and cause fatal heart attacks and strokes 
  • 80% of the diagnosed players didn’t have symptoms or didn’t know they had the condition

Former NFL players have a higher risk for an irregular type of heart rhythm that can lead to stroke, a new study finds.

Researchers said that the 460 retired football players they examined were about six times more likely to have atrial fibrillation than men who aren’t athletes.

What’s more, 80 percent of the players diagnosed didn’t have symptoms or know they had the condition. 

The team, from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says the findings show that doctors need to be vigilant about monitoring heart conditions in retired NFL players to prevent a potentially fatal stroke or heart attack from occurring. 

A new study from the Cleveland Clinic has found that 80% of the former NFL players diagnosed with atrial fibrillation didn’t have symptoms or didn’t know they had the condition. Pictured: Julio Jones (11) of the Atlanta Falcons is tackled by Ronald Darby (21) of the Philadelphia Eagles in September 2018

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the team looked at 460 retired NFL players who had an average age of 56.

The men underwent electrocardiograms, which were compared against 925 men from the Dallas Heart Study who aren’t professional athletes. 

Results showed that just 0.5 percent of the control group had atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib.

Meanwhile, 23 of the ex-players – five percent – had AFib. The majority of the men, 15, had not been diagnosed before the study. 

Normally, the heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat so blood can flow to other organs.

However, in AFib, the upper chambers of the heart beat out of coordination with the lower chambers, which weakens heart muscles.  

Clots can form and, if they enter the blood stream, they can become lodged in arteries and cause fatal heart attacks or strokes.

Some people have no symptoms and are only diagnosed after a physical exam. But others might experience symptoms including fatigue, a fluttering feeling in the chest, dizziness and shortness of breath.

According to the American Heart Association, at least 2.7 million Americans have this condition.

‘What we found, was that the retired NFL athletes had about a 5.7-fold increased risk of atrial fibrillation when you compared them to the general population,’ said lead author Dr Dermot Phelan, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.  

He said that 80 percent of the football players diagnosed didn’t have symptoms and didn’t know they had the condition.

Another surprising find was that the NFL players were eight times more likely to need a pacemaker that the group of non-athletes. 

Previous studies have shown that high endurance athletes, such as cyclists and marathon runners, who are middle-aged are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with AFib.

But Dr Phelan says this is the first study to show that the risk is similar among strength athletes. 

‘We found, with this particular group, their heart rate was a little bit slower and they didn’t actually get the tachycardia, or the fast heart rates, that we normally see with…AFib and therefore did not have any symptoms,’ he said. 

‘This is why we need to be a little bit more vigilant with this particular population.’

Dr Phelan recommends that retired players in particular need to be vigilant about  getting annual heart rhythm screenings. 


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