Compared to baseball, football players die younger

Updated: January 31, 2006, 12:49 PM ET
By Thomas Hargrove | Scripps Howard News Service

Professional football players are now more than twice as likely as Major League Baseball players to die before their 50th birthday, and medical experts say the culprit is probably differing body bulk.

As part of a study of early mortality within the National Football League, Scripps Howard News Service compared the lifespan of 3,850 deceased football players against that of 2,403 dead baseball players.

The study found that baseball players and football players born before 1955 were about equally likely to suffer an early death. But the mortality rates sharply differ among athletes born more recently.

The Complete Study
Scripps Howard News Service studied 3,850 professional-football players who have died in the last century. What they found, and some issues it raised, are chronicles here:

Study: NFL players dying young at alarming rate
Compared to baseball, football players die younger
Bigger isn't better as far as health is concerned
Evidence is clear: Preps are getting bigger, too

Among the 8,961 pro-football players born in the last 50 years, at least 130 are already dead. Among 4,382 professional baseball players, 31 are known to have died. That means 1 in every 69 football players is dead compared to 1 in every 154 baseball players.

Medical experts were quick to suspect body weight. Offensive and defensive linemen average at least 100 pounds more than most baseball players.

"There certainly seems to be a big difference between baseball players and football players, speaking just from what I see on TV,'' said Dr. Sherry Baron of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "This comparison is very interesting.''

Baron said she plans to soon repeat her 1994 study of mortality rates within the NFL. She concluded 11 years ago that most NFL players were not dying prematurely, although she said linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of death from heart disease.

The most common causes of death among baseball players are accidents, especially auto accidents, the Scripps Howard study found. Only a third of the baseball players died of medical causes.

But a majority (52 percent) of the deceased football players succumbed to conditions such as coronary disease, stroke and cancer -- diseases known to be more common among obese people.

The deceased baseball players averaged 192 pounds during their athletic careers while the dead football players averaged 238 pounds. Football players who died of medical causes averaged 248 pounds.

"There seems to be a linear relationship between weight and the likelihood of cardiovascular disease,'' said Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina.

Guskiewicz has found increased occurrences of hypertension and heart disease among 2,700 retired NFL players. "It's clearly higher than in the general population,'' he said.