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Emory researchers find college football players' weight gain leads to heart problems

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Weight gain and high blood pressure in college football players leads to adverse changes in cardiac structure and function, indicating monitoring and early intervention is needed for this young and otherwise healthy athletic population, according to a new study by Emory University researchers.

The study, published in JAMA Cardiology on Oct. 16, found weight gain and increased systolic blood pressure were associated with arterial stiffening and the development of concentric left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH) – a thickening of the wall in the heart’s left pumping chamber that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

“LVH has been reported in retired professional football players, but our study shows it’s happening earlier in players’ careers,” says Jonathan Kim, first author and principal investigator of the study, who directs sports cardiology at the Emory Heart and Vascular Center. “Football is one of the few sports in which participants actively gain significant amounts of weight in a relatively short duration, and this study confirms it can lead to early cardiovascular risk.”

Although early-life participation in competitive endurance and team-based sports generally reduces later-life health care utilization and improves longevity, previous studies have shown that professional football players are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death compared with the general population and other professional athletes.

“These results shouldn’t discourage people from participating in football, but they do warrant the development of preventive strategies to keep young players healthy,” says Kim. “This could include increasing aerobic activity, which has clear positive cardiovascular impact – something that represents an important future direction to study in this unique athletic population.”

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