Do athletes die at a younger age?

There is some evidence that points to a shorter life expectancy for professional athletes, performance artists, and elite runners. However, there is also a large number of quality studies concluding a boost in the longevity of elite athletes. Other studies confirmed that elite athletes’ longer lifespans could be explained by a reduced risk of cancer. Elite sportsmen have the internal chemistry of young people and are better protected against cancer.

Results and science are not carved in stone on this one. The myth could be true even if we found more support for increased longevity among elite athletes. A surprising find was that elite chess players also lived longer (!). Let’s see what we have found on this topic.

Can hard training shorten your life?

It sounds like a paradox. An increasing number of professional athletes that trained hard and ate healthy food suddenly died at a young age. If they get to be as old as “normal” people, there is still puzzling research that indicates that the average lifespan is still shorter than for non-athletes. How can this be? Or is it just another “doctor myth” out there?

Research confirms a drop in lifespan

This is a myth that actually appears to be true. Intensive training and performance at an elite level take a toll on your body. That sounds reasonable.

“Researchers Richard Epstein and Catherine Epstein said the study, based on analysing 1,000 New York Times obituaries from 2009-2011, found film, music, stage performers, and sports people died at an average age of 77.2 years.

This compared to an average lifespan of 78.5 years for creative workers, 81.7 for professionals and academics, and 83years for people in business, military and political careers.”

Moderate or casual training is a better choice if you want to live longer. Elite sports is not healthy in the long run. Even if athletes are better trained and have better endurance than everyone else the price for pushing the body that far is higher than the benefits, at least when it comes to life expectancy.

Old myth turns out to be true?

The usual case for Dr Myths is busting old health and medical myths. But here we have a myth becoming a fact. There is growing evidence of early death among peak performers in various fields.

There is growing hype about this paradox today, but the rumour is much older than most of you believe. We have found written evidence of this observation as far back as to the San Francisco Call, Volume 114, Number 133, 17 October 1913! That’s right already in the year 1913 there was a public post describing this phenomenon. Usually, these old findings turn out to be false when the studied group of people is larger, and the scientific methodology and measuring equipment are better as in most modern studies. However, this myth appears to be a fact. There is still to little quality research made to confirm a lower life expectancy for athletes definitely. But there is sufficient evidence to raise the warning flag about elite sports and top-level athletic activities, or?

Other research confirms the increased length of life

“Fourteen articles of epidemiological studies were identified and classified by type of sport. Life expectancy, standardised mortality ratio, standardised proportionate mortality ratio, mortality rate, and mortality odds ratio for all causes of death were used to analyse mortality and longevity of elite athletes. It appears that elite endurance (aerobic) athletes and mixed-sports (aerobic and anaerobic) athletes survive longer than the general population, as indicated by lower mortality and higher longevity. Lower cardiovascular disease mortality is likely the primary reason for their better survival rates. On the other hand, there are inconsistent results among studies of power (anaerobic) athletes. When elite athletes engaging in various sports are analysed together, their mortality is lower than that of the general population. In conclusion, long-term vigorous exercise training is associated with increased survival rates of specific groups of athletes.

The study, Do Elite Athletes Live Longer? A Systematic Review of Mortality and Longevity in Elite Athletes, also found a positive impact from hard training on the longevity of the athletes.

“A majority of studies included in this review reported superior lifespan longevity outcomes for elite athletes compared to age- and sex-matched controls from the general population and other athletes. Several mechanisms within and between sports may have powerful effects on the overall lifespan longevities of players (e.g. type of sport, playing position, race, and energy system). Future research on mortality in elite athletes would benefit from more comprehensive statistical measures and reliable databases to determine potential mechanisms that may influence mortality trends and causes in both athlete and non-athlete samples.”

There is some tendency for studies focusing on athletes with more dangerous sports and negative cultural influences of eating bad food (American NBA & NFL players) etc to find a shorter lifespan. There is an indication, but not yet proof, that studies involving American athletes result in a lower expected lifespan. As an example, MLB players were found to have the highest risk of imminent mortality.

Elite chess players also live longer

A somewhat surprising find was that elite chess players GM (Grand Mastersalso have a significantly longer life expectancy, just like most studies have found for elite players engaged in physically demanding sports.

Elite athletes are better protected from cancer

French study found that the increased life length of people participating in elite sports could be largely explained by a reduction in cancer risk, which on average made them live 6,5 years longer than the general population. This was in line with this study of endurance runners, Telomere length, and redox balance in master endurance runners, also confirming a chemical advantage in reducing the risk of cancer. In other words, endurance runners had the same chemistry as young people (better redox balance) and more favourable antioxidant/pro-oxidant ratios.

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