CHICAGO The National Football League is packed with superb athletes, but a majority have elevated blood pressure and the biggest linemen may put themselves at risk of heart disease and diabetes, researchers said on Tuesday.
In terms of their health, the players can be subdivided into the leaner positions such as runners, receivers and defensive backs and the gargantuan linemen who gorge themselves to tip the scales at well over 300 pounds (136 kg).
Researchers found 91 percent of the largest players suffered from high blood pressure or pre-hypertension. Even 78 percent of the smallest players had higher than normal blood pressure, compared with 30 percent of the general population of men aged 24 to 35.
Dr. Andrew Tucker of Union Memorial Hospital, Baltimore, and colleagues collected health data on 504 players from 12 NFL teams at preseason camp in 2007.
"In the linemen the good cholesterols are lower, and the triglycerides are higher," both signals of potential cardiovascular risk, commented Dr. Alfred Bove of Temple University in Philadelphia and the president of the American College of Cardiology in a telephone interview.
The study found players tended to have lower levels than the average American man of blood glucose, which can signal diabetes risk. Offensive linemen, however, had worrying levels. More than half the offensive linemen had measurable body fat of 25 percent or higher.
Linemen in particular are encouraged to put on weight at all levels of the sport, with some becoming obese as a result.
There are more than 1 million high school football players in the United States, and participation is increasing, according to the report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"This unexpected prevalence of pre-hypertension and hypertension has led to plans for an NFL-wide survey and in-depth investigation of the mechanisms of these findings," the researchers wrote.
The investigation will likely examine the relationship of hypertension to weight training, long-term use of over-the-counter painkillers and salt intake.
Bove said athletic training is not the problem, unless it exposes a congenital heart defect.
"I've worked with athletes for a long time and for the most part, these guys' hearts are fine. They adapt to the workload and their body size," Bove said.
But for linemen who purposely overeat to keep their weight up, there can be consequences if the weight is not taken off.
"So the plan would be, if you need that weight now, when you get done with your football career you've got to knock it off really fast or you'll be in trouble downstream," he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Maggie Fox and Cynthia Osterman)