04/04/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

College Football Players Could Have Higher Risk Of Future Heart Troubles

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By Morgan Jones

We tend to think of football players as healthy and strong, but a new study suggests that they may be prone to future heart troubles.

This study compared college football players to other college students who did not play the game.

The study found that though the non-players had higher blood pressure, the football players had stiffer arteries — a possible sign of heart problems down the line.

Blood pressure measures the force of blood on the walls of arteries. When blood pressure is chronically high, sometimes called hypertension, it can lead to a variety of issues, including heart attack and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.

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This new study, which was led by Jonathan Kim, MD, cardiology research fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, examined a variety of cardiovascular factors in college football players, including blood pressure, weight and stiffness of the arteries, which may predict later blood pressure troubles.

Dr. Kim and team looked at 50 freshman football players from two different college teams. A variety of data on the players was recorded during the pre-season and was compared to a group of healthy undergraduate students who were not football players.

The players had an average age of 18.5 years old, and consisted of 46 percent Caucasians and 54 percent African Americans. The non-player participants had an average age of 19.2 years old, and consisted of half Caucasians and half African Americans.

The football players were larger in size than their counterparts, with an average height of 187 centimeters (around 6 feet, 2 inches) compared with 178 cm (around 5 feet, 10 inches), and an average BMI of 29.2 compared with 23.7.

A BMI over 25 is typically considered overweight and a BMI of 30 is typically considered obese. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that athletes with a lot of muscle may have a higher BMI from increased muscle weight, not from increased body fat. The football players reported an average of 5.4 hours per week of weight training, compared with the 2.4 hours per week reported by the non-players.

Dr. Kim and team found that the non-players had higher blood pressure, but that the football players had significantly higher carotid-femoral aortic pulse wave velocity, which measures the stiffness of arteries.

"It is known that in other populations, increased pulse wave velocity precedes the development of hypertension," Dr. Kim said in a press release from Emory University.

The researchers also saw some evidence of possible differences between the heart health of players with different football positions. Further research is needed to confirm the findings.

Dr. Kim and team concluded that greater stiffness of the arteries was seen in the football players than in the controls, but that further long-term studies are needed to see if this factor will, in fact, predict high blood pressure or other heart issues in the long term for these athletes.

This study was presented March 29 at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting in Washington DC. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Studies presented at conferences are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.