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.
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
"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.