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College Football Linked to Heart Disease Risk

Update Date: Jul 29, 2013 04:41 PM EDT

Most high school athletes long to play sports in college. However, new research reveals that the dream of being a college sports star could be dangerous for those who want to play football.

A new study revealed that college football players, especially linemen, are at risk of developing high blood pressure over the course of their first season.

The findings published in the journal Circulation documented higher blood pressure levels among 113 first-year college players. Researchers said that only one player had already been diagnosed with hypertension before the season and 27 percent had a family history of hypertension.

Researchers examined at the players again post-season and found that 47 percent of players were considered pre-hypertensive and 14 percent had stage 1 hypertension.

Researchers noted that previous studies indicate blood pressure elevation during adolescence and young adulthood can increase heart disease and heart-related death later in life. They say the latest findings suggest early careful monitoring of young football players and timely treatment could significantly improve their heart health later in life.

"High blood pressure is not a good thing at any point in life, but especially during the first two decades," senior investigator Dr. Aaron L. Baggish said in a news release.

"The findings shouldn't scare players," said Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. "The earlier in life we can identify and begin treating it the better, and identifying special at-risk groups, like these players, is essential."

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Department of Athletics tracked blood pressure changes among players on the Harvard University team, before and after their first season from 2006 to 2011.  Study authors also looked for changes in endurance-trained competitive rowers, but found no corresponding increase in blood pressure.  Researchers said the findings suggest that the phenomenon may be related to periodic episodes of intense exertion in sports like football.

Study results indicated that on average blood pressure levels averaged 116/64 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) - which is normal - before the season, but afterward rose to an average 125/66 mm Hg, which is pre-hypertensive.

The study revealed that linemen who gain weight during the season and have a family history of high blood pressure were most likely to suffer post-season hypertension.

Football players were also more likely to experience left ventricle thickening (left ventricular hypertrophy) than endurance athletes.  Researchers noted that linemen were significantly more likely to develop left ventricular hypertrophy.

"Importantly, left ventricular hypertrophy among football players was strongly associated with resting blood pressure suggesting that heart remodeling in some athletes may be due to what happens off the playing field," Baggish said.

Experts note that the latest study should not be interpreted to mean that playing football causes hypertension.

"Instead, it suggests increased surveillance particularly in those most susceptible: those with a family history of hypertension or playing on the offensive or defensive line," American Heart Association spokesperson Dr. Ernesto Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., who is not affiliated with the study, said in a statement.

"Considering the popularity of football in the United States, I believe this knowledge of an association with enhanced prevalence of pre-hypertension and stage 1 hypertension after one season in some players is extremely important," he added.

Previous studies revealed that professional football players have higher rates of hypertension and premature death from heart disease.  This risk is especially high in linemen, according to Baggish.

Researchers said the next step is to monitor players identified as at-risk to gain a better understanding of hypertension and heart disease as football players age.

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