Saturday, July 28, 2012

So What Can We Learn from Olympians and Life Expectancy?

If you stayed up late last night watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, you had a chance to see the surviving Olympians from the last time the games were in London in 1948. Since I’m fascinated by what impacts life expectancy, this made me wonder what the average life expectancy was of Olympians.

Shockingly, for elite world-class athletes, it’s 67 years of age, well below the national average in the United States by at least 10 years. If you are a pro football player, life expectancy is well below that of other top athletes, with the average age being 58 at the time of death. Actually, some of the stats I read put it even lower 55 and even 51. Part of it depends on the position you play.

Yikes! One things for sure, being fit doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy.

We’ve all seen the headlines when a young athlete dies on the basketball court or in the middle of a race. Generally these deaths are attributed to heart disease, many times a condition they were born with. Interestingly, a high percentage of these deaths could be avoided by screening. Needless to say, not wanting to be taken out of the game is reason enough for some of these athletes not to be tested.

By their mid 30’s, the leading cause of death becomes clogged arteries, which can be attributed to a less than healthy life style beginning in adolescents. Even though McDonald’s is one of the Olympic sponsors, the smart athletes avoid eating this type of food. However, stress and over training can contribute to this disease and can continue to create problems for the athlete as they age.

Certain sports, particularly American football, do not promote a healthy life style. Not only are players encouraged to “play through the pain,” certain positions are encouraged to “bulk up,” setting the player on a course of obesity. Among Sumo Wrestlers, the average life expectancy is 60-65 years of age, at least ten years lower than other Japanese men. Again diet and obesity contribute to this early death.

The incredible number of diseases and conditions relating to brain injury-even a series of mild concussions-are just now being documented. Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are just some of the conditions resulting in early death for football players, ice hockey players, boxers, wrestlers and other athletes where it’s easier to sustain a brain injury. While Lou Gehrigs’ name is interchangeable with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), it is becoming apparent than he and other athletes are dying from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is a progressive degenerative disease resulting from repeated concussions and other forms of brain injury.

Some athletes use “performance enhancing drugs,” which can have considerable negative impact on their life. Anabolic steroid abuse can cause heart damage and lead to a variety of mental health problems including suicidal behavior.

All things considered, which athletes live the longest? It appears to be those in track and field, or those sports that use isotonic exercise (moving arms and legs).

So the take home point? Go for the healthy lifestyle that includes moderate exercise (30 minutes five times a week is sufficient), stress reduction and preventive health screening.

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